All posts by Stephen Bolwell

Stephen Bolwell is a photographer, painter and writer. His blog - 'Take a Picture - Save the Planet' deals with both serious and light hearted environmental issues; he has a background in wildlife documentary filmmaking for television and posts short wildlife clips on YouTube.

A Brief History and Natural History of Coronavirus and its journey to Pandemic.

Is the Coronavirus emergency a dry run for how climate change will be dealt with in the not too distant future? If that is the case there is cause for concern.

 Coronaviruses are a group of viruses variously associated with crossing from mammals to humans, which cause novel and often serious diseases when they do so. In general appearance they look as if somebody has taken a potato and stuck golf tees into the surface… a potato too small to eat, and golf tees too tiny for a cart jockey to ‘go chasing whitey’.

On December 31st 2019 China reported several cases of an unusual from of pneumonia in Wuhan, a port city in Hubei province. Some of those infected worked in a local fish market, which was quickly shut down. The virus responsible was a member of the coronavirus family, a new variation on a very basic plan: imperceptible to the naked eye, this tiny organism crossed over from a wild creature to a human being – it wasn’t the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last. The original host is still in question, but thought to have been a bat, although the virus may have passed through an intermediary, perhaps a pangolin, which is odd because pangolins are a critically endangered species.

There are four species of Asian Pangolin all endangered; and poachers are now targeting African species to fulfil demand.

The Chinese have an insatiable desire for pangolin scales, with the creature’s meat a delicacy. Years ago a Chinese friend joked that if it moved, the Chinese will eat it, which sounded racist even back in 1985, but I couldn’t help myself and said, ‘Just like the French.”  We both laughed, but not as loudly as the Belgian standing next to us. We were beneath the shade of a big old tree in Central Africa, with there was nobody around to get offended on somebody else’s behalf. I was trying to buy the python my Chinese friend was fattening up in a sack under his house – he said it would make good soup, but I’m fond of snakes and was doing my best to keep the creature alive. The reptile had grown large and my friend had decided to present it to me just before I flew out on a light aircraft – with a pilot who was extremely concerned, but he needn’t have worried, the reptile escaped without my help. Had I taken the creature on board I might have claimed this the inspiration for ‘Snakes on a Plane’, but there was no chance of that now we’d escaped a potential disaster… It was quite the reverse from how things are today with the recently emerged coronavirus getting on a planes and proving itself infinitely more deadly than any reptile, travelling as it would in the respiratory systems of passengers, almost unnoticed – apart from a few raised temperatures and irritating coughs. This enterprising virus would get to almost any location that a human might decide to travel, and do so very quickly. Persistent and infectious this mutant coronavirus would make any snake related disaster imaginable seem like a minor inconvenience.

The new infection would soon to be taken seriously enough to be given its own name, COVID-19, officially known as ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2‘, or SARS-CoV-2 because it is related to the first SARS virus – an outbreak of which occurred in 2003. Initial reports suggested that it had originated from a cobra, but snakes are not closely related to our species making them an unlikely source for a human variant; far more likely that it came from a mammal.

In late February 2020 a research group demonstrated that a coronavirus found in frozen cell samples taken from illegally trafficked pangolins in China shared between 85.5% to 92.4% D.N.A. with the coronavirus that was infecting humans. Another research project came up with a slightly tighter match at around 90%; and yet another study discovered a coronavirus in a bat that shared 96%  of its DNA with the human COVID-19 form; but despite a basic awareness of the numerous animal species that carry closely related coronaviruses, nobody knows the precise route the variant took to enter a human host.

When a coronavirus crossed over to become Severe Acute  Respiratory Syndrome (SARS CoV) in 2002-2003, it produced a severe form of pneumonia which probably originated from a live animal market in Guangdong – the bat population from which the syndrome was thought to originate was however only about 1 kilometre from the nearest village and the virus also  remains viable for a time in bat droppings and with transmission to other mammals the route  it took to enter a human host is still open to question. Nevertheless it rapidly became a problem because humans do not have any developed resistance to new infections that arise from mutated forms that suddenly adopt us as a host.

The SARS virus was found to be present in Rhinolophus bats, the Asian palm civet and a variety of other small mammals – and because of its association with the virus the civet was soon to become persecuted. But wild animals carrying viruses that might cross over to us are not really to blame, especially when they are captured and brought into primitive markets where basic standards of hygiene are a low priority. Here a variety of creatures are brought together in high numbers in cages stacked one upon another bringing together animals, both wild and domestic, that would not usually meet, making it a high probability that COVID-19 originated under these circumstances. China hopes that other nations will not play the blame game, but if novel viral infections are proven to originate from such animal markets and these continue to operate, attitudes to how global trade and travel is conducted must significantly change.

SARS is closely related to COVID-19, but it was contained and died out before a vaccine could be developed. Iin 2012 another Coronavirus showed up in humans – Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) which once again was thought to be transmitted by bats. Scientists compared the virus surface spikes of MERS-CoV to a related bat coronavirus HKU4 which cannot mediate entry into a human, but only two mutations (on the MERS-CoV spike) were required to enable it to do so, thus enabling the virus to enter a human cell.

The coronavirus that recently crossed over to a human most likely came from a horseshoe bat; and it was an Asian fruit bat that transmitted the Nipah virus to humans in Malaysia in 1998. In Central Africa Ebola virus probably crossed over from a fruit bat before reaching epidemic proportions in 2014, and at least 300 strains of coronavirus are now known to be circulating in bats.

Why Bats?

The reason relates directly to the evolution of flight in the order of mammals (Chiroptera). A flying bat has a metabolic rate two and a half to three times the requirements of an active non-flying mammal of similar size. Essentially, flight should be detrimental to a bat’s health – the oxidative stress of a high metabolic rate inducing the release of free radicals which damage DNA. To overcome the toxicity, bats have evolved mechanisms to minimise the problem and also repair damaged DNA; in the process the gene variants involved provide protection by boosting the immune system, allowing bats to carry viruses without serious consequences, which makes them ideal hosts for coronaviruses to inhabit.

The next question is how does coronavirus get into a human in the first place – what is the physics and chemistry of the process: certainly the spiky surface of the organism is an important part of the story. The virus must firstly get into the respiratory tract of a human, once there it has to enter a cell and this is achieved when the oily layer coating a spike manages to combine with the membrane on a cells surface. If fusion occurs the virus may then enter the cell and mutations of the proteins contained on the spike’s surface are important factors in transmissibility – if everything falls into place the coronavirus will infect its new host. 

Knowing this to be a basic mechanism of transmission, the advice we have been given to inhibit the infection now running through the human populations makes sense: washing our hands properly with soap and water along with the use of alcohol wipes and sprays helps reduce COVID-19’s progress by disrupting the oily protein layer on the spikes of the virus and greatly reduces the chances of the organism entering a human respiratory system cell, and in a best case scenario will dissolve the virus membrane rendering it inactive.

Viruses are too small to see with the naked eye – there are no optical pictures. The ones we do see are either drawn or computer generated images. If they are real they are scanning electron microscope pictures without colour, but to make them more interesting they may be represented in colour: this is not science, so maybe we should call it art.

Finally, there is the question of how frequently mutations occur: coronavirus has a proof reading enzyme which stops too many mistakes from being made during reproduction, reducing the number of mutations of the relevant protein on the surface of the spike. Because mutations are less frequent it has been difficult for scientists to follow the course of the infection, because it is changes in the virus’s make up that provides markers to indicate where the infection has come from. Not being able to ascertain the route has to some degree hindered attempts to contain the infection; but there is also an up side – unlike flu this viruses does not change regularly which at least makes it predictable and important in the development of a treatment. 

Covid-19 is thought to have started in a similar manner to SARS, but in this case originating in a wet market in Hubei province and once established in a human host the new viral disease would soon begin its rapid journey around the world. The first recorded case from China was on the 17th November 2019, and by the 11th March 2020, 122,000 cases had been recorded in 121 different countries. The clever thing about viral infections is that they don’t stay in one place for very long, and unless dealt with in the emergent stage, will sometimes become unstoppable. 

If when the disease emerged China had clamped down, the virus might have been contained, but the initial decisions were taken at a local level, and it wasn’t until decisions were made further up the chain of command that the disease was dealt with effectively. With a virus spreading exponentially a day missed can result in thousands of infections. Unfortunately, before the government clampdown in the region where the outbreak started, people were moving off to visit family and friends on their Chinese New Year holidays and initially there were no movement or quarantine restrictions – it was a bad start. For a month very little was done to curtail the disease, and by the time more stringent measures were in place, it was far too late, the disease had taken off and  moving elsewhere – the problem no longer containable.

In fairness to China, after a poor start, the country has shown an unrelenting commitment to eradicate the virus, and with impressive results. Back in February it was a different story. On 12th. Hubei reported nearly 15,000 cases of infection, with 242 deaths in a single day – figures were being reassessed, officials were being sacked. On 13th there were 5,000 more cases and another 116 people had died. It was disturbing, and by 18th the total number of infections in Hubei totalled 61,682, with the death toll reaching 1,921.

At this stage it was difficult to image that things were going to get better, but a month later on 18th March 2020 it was announce that homeland infections in China had been reduced to zero, which is astonishing given the virulence of COVID-19. If the official figures given for the outbreak were considered on the low side, then this only serves to make the present situation all the more impressive. With restrictions becoming less strict in Hubei, the world now waits to see if the virus will make a comeback, and if it does, how it will be dealt with.

 As the cradle of the disease China presented an early example of how the disease might progress and South Korea which I mention later, wasn’t far behind and it was important for other countries to watch and learn from these early dealings with the disease.

For some inexplicable reason, many Europe countries and the United States dithered. China and South Korea were far away – maybe it wouldn’t be such a big problem. In the U.S. in particular it was business as usual no matter the warning signs, few preparations were made for what was about to happen and valuable time was wasted. 

On 31st Jan 2020. two Chinese tourists tested positive for COVID-19 in Rome; a week later an Italian man returning from Wuhan in China was taken into hospital and became the third case in Italy. Then things took off. The Lombardy region was hit particularly hard and pretty soon growth in the disease would reach an exponential growth rate. Soon there were too many cases for hospitals to deal with; intensive care units were overwhelmed, and the only products being manufactured were coffins.

To list the figures for the next 19 days isn’t necessary. It is a distressing story, a novel disease would produce something more terrible than a work of fiction and by 19th March 2020 Italy surpassed China with 3,400 deaths from Covid-19, with 40,000 recorded cases, 5,322 of them on this one day. The outbreak in Italy put the frighteners on the rest of Europe, and pretty soon things began to look bad in France, German, Britain and especially in Spain.

For a time, the streets of Italy were deserted with people confined to their homes. To see such a thing is unusual because in spring and summer Italians are very social – often out of doors; but for obvious reasons I was never there and this picture is a bit of a cheat…

Almost a week before the COVID-19 was declared a ‘Global Heath Emergency’ a group of news correspondents in the U.K. complacently suggested that the situation was mostly under control, which begs the question: how much do these people really know, or more to the point – how much of what they think they know is wishful thinking? Wherever we are in the world we know these people – they are the same ones that told us Donald Trump was unelectable and Brexit would never happen. People who find it easy to run off at the mouth despite being incapable of critical analysis – they are prepared to offer their thoughts on just about anything without due consideration for their ignorance; in this case, an immunological problem about which they knew absolutely nothing.

Then there are the politicians who’s priorities it seems has been to keep world economies stable, making this a priority over the health of the people who elected them into office. Of course, it would be naive to suggest that economies are not enormously consequential to us all, but the truth about what we are all likely to experience should not be coming in a poor third to financial gain and political self interest. It is of course necessary to reduce the likelihood of panic, but underplaying the science, which so clearly indicates that COVID-19 will most likely become a pandemic requiring a rapid and appropriately reaction is unforgivable. (Obviously, things have moved along since I wrote this. So has there been an appropriate reaction. In many places around the World the answer has to be no).

I guess if politicians aren’t going to take the virus seriously, it’s O.K. for me to represent bagpipe style virus in my grandfather’s tartan.

 Clearly the smooth running of our economies is important, but like wars, less important to most individuals than staying alive. If politicians can’t grasp the magnitude of the situation and the disease’s potential because they are incapable of understanding the science and the basic maths that goes along with it, they should listen more closely to what their scientific advisors tell them, even when this is based on models of likely outcomes, as data based decision making is much better than simply guessing, or those other favourites – ‘being hopeful’ and ‘maybe we’ll get lucky’.

There was a point in the disease when many believed that this was just another bout of the flu, so why bother with it? –  nature was just clearing out her old sock drawer, but thinking that way was a mistake. The disease is more infectious than flu, moving faster and increasing exponentially over a very short period of time  – in some cases doubling every three days – and without a vaccine it could, if unchecked, create total chaos as health services become overwhelmed with patients they will not be able to treat, and with large numbers dying unnecessarily. In many countries there has been inadequate testing for the virus, in consequence knowing exactly how many people are carrying the disease is impossible to estimate because some people show no symptoms. We will of course be aware of the number of people infected in hospitals and the numbers dying because such things are hard to miss; but increasingly it isn’t just the old and vulnerable who are in danger, as younger people are now dying from the infection; and who can say for certain that the virus won’t suddenly mutate and start taking out healthy young economists, the same way it is taking out health workers. 

The situation in the USA was sketchy from very early on. On February 26th President Trump was at first dismissive – ‘there were a low number of cases, the people who were ill were getting better and in a couple of days the numbers would be down to zero’. Then on the 28th he said – about those working on the virus – that ‘they’d done an incredible job, and like a miracle it would disappear’. On March 6th he clarified that, ‘anybody who needed a test would get a test and the tests were beautiful’… and they may well have been, but they certainly weren’t available to everybody who needed one.

Rather oddly, on the 20th February when things started to look problematic the President put Vice-President Mike Pence in charge – an individual who thinks Darwin was wrong – a clear indication that this is a man not well versed in science. The President could have appointed an expert medical advisor such as Dr Anthony Fauci The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; a man already on the task force, but he had spoken out on the lack of preparedness of the administration to deal with the outbreak. A comment made when President Trump closed US airports indicated that the president ‘had shut the chicken coop door after the horse had bolted’ – an interesting mixed metaphor, implying that the President had missed his opportunity to react appropriately. Soon after the President gave himself a perfect 10 out of 10 for his dealings with the coronavirus emergency. A U.S. medical expert quickly responded that 10 out of 100 was nearer the mark.

On a more personal note the air travel announcement came a couple of hours after I’d seen my wife off from Vancouver airport to attend her mother’s funeral in the U.K. she had booked to travel via the USA before the virus went global, and her return flight was cancelled; she then had trouble booking a flight back to Canada. Everything was suddenly moving too quickly for most of us to keep up with. U.S. airports had already been closed to travellers from Europe (understandably so because on that very same day Italy had 250 deaths in 24 hours). Now US air travel was being closed to Britain where the death rate still remained low, but nevertheless doubled on the 14th March. There were then 1,100 confirmed cases of infection in the U.K. but the real figure was estimated to be nearer 10 times that figure. Without testing the general population, it was impossible to say and by 26th March no testing outside of hospitals  was still the official policy – probably because there simply aren’t enough kits to facilitate doing so.

South Korea is one of a few exceptions to the general trend, and were able to provide reliable figures fairly early on because they were testing thousands of people. By 11th March the USA had tested 11,000 people,  while South Korea was testing 10,000 a day for free, with some reports suggesting this figure was nearer 20,000 a day. Five days later it was reported that South Korea had tested some 250,000 people while the USA had managed only 20,000 in total; which is ironic because on the same day The World Health Organisation (WHO) said, ‘You can’t fight a fire blindfolded. Test, test, test’. The clear implication, being that it is impossible to judge the scope of the problem until you know how many people are infected, and when you have done as many tests as possible, it makes sense to identify all contacts from two days prior to the infected persons first signs of illness and test those people as well. However, the increasing number of infections in many countries was by this time, likely to have passed the point where this could be done successfully; certainly this was the case for the U.S.A. because so few had been tested under a public health service that was poorly funded making the number of infected people difficult to ascertain. 

The USA had opted to produce its own testing kits, but there simply weren’t enough of them, and many didn’t work very well. It was as if the U.S. wasn’t serious about dealing with the problem. President Trump seemed preoccupied with protecting the economy and appeared to be saying almost anything to divert attention from the problems that a potential pandemic might have on the money markets, and so the country didn’t react when it should have done. Stock exchange values began to tumble and realising the U.S. was not going to escape fiscal pain the President surprised everybody with a U-turn and on 13th March declared a national emergency.

In Britain as of 25th of March people were not being tested unless they were in hospital, and neither were the medical staff who were treating them (although by the 27th there were promises to do so, as health workers were quite reasonably, showing concern). But those who though they had the virus were still being told to go home and self isolate and were unable to get tested by a doctor. To say Britain has been ill prepared for this emergency is an understatement. On 26th March Mayor Giorgio Gori of Bergamo in the Lombardy region of Italy said that Britain had got it wrong – with infection rate two weeks behind Italy, it had been too slow to react which might cost many lives.

In the USA critics considered the administrations reaction to COVID-19 to be all over the place and the markets continued to be volatile. It was Jo Biden (the most likely candidate to stand against President Trump in the Presidential election of November 2020) who on 12th March steadied the ship, with a speech that probably should have been made by the president; and you have to wonder if the electorate will remember the disorganised  nature of the current administration’s handling of this national emergency when it comes to November… if the election still happens. On 26th March President Trump was still hopeful of getting people back to work – a couple of days previously he had suggested that could be by Easter, but set against the news on 26th March, that the USA had 83,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, overtaking all other countries to become the epicentre of the pandemic, getting back to work seemed the least of its problems. By the 28th New York was pleading with the government to get started on making respirators as they needed them urgently. The president thought that such provisions were better coming from private industry, but N.Y. needed them urgently…and I wonder how many political turning points you can have as this will to come back to haunt the president if there are people dying through lack of respirators.

The country had plenty of time to consider the seriousness of the developing situation, but still appeared woefully ill prepared. Looking beyond COVID-19, we might ask whether many of  our leaders will persist with exactly the same approach to global climate change, and continue with the usual resistance to scientific evidence, inhibiting our ability to react appropriately, and we find ourselves in yet another dire situation of a different making.

The only positive thing to come from the pandemic is a slowing of industrial productivity, leading to a rapid reduction in carbon and other emissions with the consequence that many of us are experiencing much cleaner air. Aerial views of major cities worldwide demonstrate that pollutants have largely disappeared from areas that a few months ago were experiencing serious air quality problems – with some of this the result of a recent reduction in air travel. However, the global pandemic is co-incidental to our climate problems, and probably isn’t the most appropriate way to reduce Carbon emissions.

COVID-19 has demonstrated clearly, that we might be incapable of reacting quickly any big problems that occur on a global scale; as by the time we do, they are out of our control. Just as with climate change,  we are too often simply hoping for the best, while our leaders react too slowly to scientific evidence available, in deference to short term economic gain; and if that continues, such actions will not save our economies, but inevitably lead us to a far more precarious future.

I am aware the COVID-19 pandemic has caused suffering in a great many countries and I regret that I have not been able to follow all of them; certainly I should have given more attention to Spain where the virus has taken hold. As I finish writing on 27th March, although the infection rate in Spain has slowed, the number of deaths today totalled 769. Unfortunately the country did not lock down quickly enough and testing for the virus was not adequate.

Around the world the COVID-19 story is changing by the hour, with India now coming into the story: this country has the second highest population in the world – and with  people living in close proximity to one another, self distancing is difficult to achieve. Dealing with the virus under such circumstances is a monumental task; nevertheless on 24th March Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the country on lockdown for 21 days in an effort to get to grips with the virus at a relatively early stage when infection rates might still be manageable. It remains to be seen whether India can succeed where other countries have failed. Whatever the case, the World must now act together in solidarity because for the first time in living memory, we are all in this together. On the evening of 28th March Prime Minister Boris Johnson who the previous evening had tested positive for the virus (as was the case for his Health Secretary and Chief Medical Officer), announced a lockdown in Britain; and critics of policies that had previously seemed too vague for many Britains to follow were saying, ‘better late than never’.

 

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Have 11,000 Scientist Got it Wrong on Climate Change? And the Problem of Melting of Ice.

Science and Its Relationship to Climate Change:

On the 40th Anniversary of the first World Climate Change Conference  (Geneva 1979), a statement was published in the Journal of Bioscience, signed by 11,000 scientists advocating a curb on population growth, a halt to forest destruction, a change of attitudes to meat production, and a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels: all with the intention of combating the climate emergency.

Harmony in the forest, but for how much longer?

By 2016 studies indicated that 90-100% of scientists believed that climate change was real, and if climate deniers wanted confirmation of their beliefs it would be best to consult amongst the doubting 10% and avoid those better informed where the census was up around 97%.

 Those with a vested interest in climate change, and politicians wishing to maintain support amongst deniers have regularly consulted with those who have the least expertise in an effort to elicit doubt.

By 2016 various papers had been published on ‘Scientific Consensus’ in relation to ‘Knowledge’

and an interpretation of some of them is shown in the graph below. At a glance, the base line looks dodgy: running from POOR to GOOD isn’t a precise way to measure anything, and must be considered unreliable.

Nevertheless, the top end of the graph is supported by other research projects that indicate a high degree of consensus amongst the most knowledgeable – nothing seems wrong here; but at the bottom end where scientific knowledge is poor, precision of measurement becomes more difficult because it all depends on how knowledge is being measured and who is being asked.

With this in mind the graph could start almost anywhere, but despite this there is clear evidence that the closer scientists work to climate change, the more likely they are to agree that it is happening: something in the science must be influencing their conclusions, whilst the less well informed demonstrate a greater bias, or they just don’t know enough to draw reliable conclusions. The abstract Consensus on Consensus. 2016. John Cook et al. looks at the relationship more closely.

We can’t be expected to follow every line of scientific of research, but are always better informed by science than matters of opinion. For those who choose not to accept the scientific consensus it is a matter of cherry picking the evidence to support personal beliefs; visiting the internet is a  good way to do this, because what we see there will be ruled by digital algorithms that use our previous search histories to select what we see next. 

If we want to confirm our beliefs in really stupid things, the World Wide Web maximizes our chances of doing so; it can even put us in contact with like minded people… Despite this, the internet is not the enemy of rational thinking, but an unfortunate quirk of the way the system operates causes it to search for information in a way that scientists don’t, which reinforces bias. Science works hard to avoid such a thing; prioritising facts over opinions it accumulates knowledge and opens up possibilities. The internet can be equally informative, but used uncritically it quickly reinforces our preconceptions, narrows our thinking and sometimes leads us away from the truth – not that a mistaken or surrealist thought is always a bad thing, it’s just isn’t the best way to deal with global warming – we need to keep it real.

If it doesn’t seem likely – you’ll find it on the Internet.

If we fail to confirm our beliefs amongst the scientific community, and can’t find what we need on the internet (which seems unlikely), there are any number of fake scientists and conspiracy theorists who can supply us with alternative views on evidence based information; but  those who want to stay closer to the truth, it is best to consult studies that are recognised by others accredited in the field. Over the last four years the percentage of scientists who believe that anthropogenic climate change is happening, has been rising and is now at around 99%.

Quite possibly, we are living through one of the most challenging centuries humanity will face – twenty years in, the likelihood that 11,000 scientists are wrong about the climate emergency is unlikely.

What we know:

  1. Carbon release into the atmosphere is increasing and human activity is the cause. Agriculture, forestry and industry are factors and the burning of fossil fuels is especially consequential and causing the Planet to warm.

2. The process is being monitored by scientists, and efforts are being made to convince politicians to act responsibly, limiting Carbon release to moderate the warming effect.

3. This must happen soon, because there are potential turning points beyond which it will be impossible to recover.

4. What needs to be done is clearly understood, but progress in combating climate change has been slow and there is cause for concern.

5. Some of us seem complacently smug about making small personal changes without fully appreciating the magnitude of the situation – small changes in lifestyle will not be enough.

If governments are to combat climate change, they must take action soon:

many world leaders and their governments have so far avoided coming into line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement – the first worldwide legally binding accord on climate; adopted at ‘The Paris Climate Conference’ (COP21) in December 2015 it set a framework to reduce Carbon emissions by limiting global temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with a target increase of not more than 1.5°C by the end of the Century.

The most recent Conference of Parties (COP25) recently took place in Madrid, and there was a pervasive sense of frustration amongst delegates because many governments fell short of prescribed temperature rise targets, and in some cases delayed meeting them altogether.

In the early 1970s when I made this simple cartoon I was unaware of what the future would bring. it isn’ just water vapour that planes put into the air: Carbon emissions from air travel has become a serious problem and continues to rise. If nothing changes, air travel alone will use around half of our emissions budget by 2050. Ironically I’ve contributed to the problem by flying around the world to work on environmental stories, but when it comes to climate change, few of us are squeaky clean.

Unfortunately, there has been a mismatch between what scientists know and how politicians behave in light of the facts. Climate scientists tend to be pessimistic about the current trend in rising global temperatures whilst politicians are more optimistic – in part because, when they take time to consult scientific research (which is by no means a given), they reach conclusions in a way that scientists don’t, cherrypicking the evidence that best suits their policies. The reality is, their goals are very different.

A Cross Section of Scientists and Politicians Stand Together.
It’s easy to tell the optimists from the pessimists, but the situation is complicated. Baz seems cheery, he’s a politician but has always identified as a scientist – he’s mistaken, although he does have a GCE O-Level in Biology, but has worked as an economists for most of his life – he thinks natural resources are free, to be taken without penalty, and world economies must keep expanding to survive, even though our world has finite resources. Then there’s Phil, who thinks he knows a lot about science because he has a school certificate in sociology. Recently, he’s been appearing on T.V., describing himself as a crypto-zoologist, claiming the existence of animals for which there is no scientific evidence, in some cases describing them as spiritual entities. Phil has a gift – he can sound convincing about almost anything, and the less he knows the more convincing he sounds, especially to those with limited scientific knowledge. A cursory glance at Phil’s face suggests pessimism, but really he’s just gormless – Phil is a likeable idiot.
Crypto Phil came for a visit the other day and noticed tracks across my lawn: he told me that their size and the presence of toes were a sure sign that a bigfoot had visited my garden. This he said was unusual. I mentioned that before the thaw had set in I’d been walking along the same snow track to put food out on the bird table. ‘And are you seeing fewer birds since the footprints showed up?’ he asked. The weather had become milder, the snow was melting and I admitted that fewer birds were coming in. ‘There you are then.’ he said. Phil likes coming to conclusions – it’s all the stuff before that he has trouble with.

Science is a rigorous process with the fine details being continuously refined; it never stands still and those working in different disciplines may not have enough expertise to make value judgements outside of their field. So, what chance do the rest of us have? Well, not a lot, but if the science under consideration derives from a prestigious scientific journal such as ‘Science’ or ‘Nature’, we can be fairly confident of the veracity of the published work, everything will have been vigorously peer reviewed, and we should pay attention to the conclusions because science is not a matter of opinion to be countered by ‘alternative facts’. There is in any case usually no need to get sniffy about less prestigious publications, as most are peer reviewed journals and in consequence reliable, although it is wise to be discerning. ‘The Journal of Little Green Men’, probably doesn’t need to be on your reading list unless all your research is being done on social media. 

There’s no need to make things up about science and nature – the real world is interesting enough already.

The result of Britain’s December 2019  general election was interesting because Parties with strong environmental policies (such as the Green Party) did not make inroads into votes going to more traditional parties. This raises the question as to how the electorate can be persuaded to vote for politicians prioritizing environmental issues over other concerns, because If this can’t be done, the traditional parties will have to be pushed into do doing far more to combat climate change.

Motivating individuals to react proactively to the climate crisis has been difficult; a great many people will happily admit to the problem, but so far, few have been inclined to vote for change. Tell people that it is necessary to keep global temperature increase down to 1.5°C over a century and they show very little interest – probably because the information is presented with no sense of urgency and it doesn’t spur individuals on to demand action from their leaders. Recently, Brexit split Britain with clear opinions for and against and there was a clear understanding that this was an important issue; but compared to rapid species loss, declining natural environments and climate change, it might prove in the longterm to be far less consequential.

Britain has experienced some really warm summers during the last century. The summer of 1976 stands out in my mind in particular because I spent a good many days filming heathland and woodland fires. Going back through meteorological records there have been many hot summers, but nothing compares to the present. The last 9 years have, globally, been the hottest on record.

A hot summer’s day in Britain during the early 1980s. Memorable to me perhaps, but over a  short period of time more recent weather conditions have become more extreme.

Ian Bateman of Exeter University has authored a new study published in Nature – Food, and spoken about the effect of the warming climate on agriculture in Britain. He says that a standard rise of 2°C of global temperature over an average lifetime might initially benefit agriculture, as past warmer years have usually benefited food production; but if conditions should become too dry, it would be necessary to pipe water to the eastern side of the country from the north and west – these regions of higher rainfall; the cost of doing this would most likely eliminate any profit from the increased production; and if temperatures kept rising the benefits would be short term.

The scenario could be even more worrying if global warming proved to be more extreme, say a 3°C rise in temperature resulting in a more rapid melting of the Arctic ice and Greenland ice sheets which might turn off the Gulf Stream bringing warm water up from the Caribbean to flow around Britain. The Gulf Stream presently provides a warmer temperate climate than Britain could reasonably expect from its northern geographical position. If the stream just flowed (as it might) from west to east across the Atlantic and never reached Britain the results would be catastrophic.

When compared to most of Europe, the Gulf Stream makes Britain and Ireland a special case in the climate stakes. If these Islands could think, they might imagine themselves much further south because of the warm water presently flowing around them. If the gulf Stream switched off the climate would become significantly less warm and the British would at last be justified in moaning about their weather.

With the Gulf Stream off, Britain’s food production would be reduced by a third or worse. The Islands rely on food imports from other countries and if a reduction in food production is widespread, feeding Britain’s ever increasing population would in retrospect make Brexit seem trivial: unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to visualise ahead of time which are ‘the most important’ of ‘the most important things’ to worry about.

A BBC news reader recently expressed surprise when she read out, ‘almost 3% of the World’s Carbon emissions come from shipping goods around the world’. Like many other heavy transport systems, cargo ships run almost exclusively on ‘dirty’ Carbon based fossil fuels. Imagine then if we weren’t able to eat oranges or bananas because we lived outside of the regions where they grow; we might consider things were going backwards; but there is no doubt it would moderate climate problems if we all ate food grown closer to home.

There is however some good news: a change of emphasis has occurred in the way science and the media deal with environmental issues and climate change. In the past scientists never expected their many years of research to lead to the public interpreting the findings and acting appropriately, or expect politicians to act quickly on issues related by their work. The interpretation of science has always been the job of the media – with varying degrees of success – but with the present immediacy of environmental issues scientists have become more inclined to speak out, and the current mood of the media is to provide them a platform to do so.

Twenty years ago it was difficult to find scientists capable of  engaging public interest; those that could, would often transition to the media where they were more likely to be listened to and the money was better; but things are changing – why would scientists allow their ideas to be re-jigged by media personalities if they are able to speak effectively for themselves?

Professor Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds recently spoke to great effect on the melting of Greenland’s ice sheets and potential changes in sea level; he explained the current scientific work concisely and without melodrama  – in part because the current scientific work is so dramatically clear there is no need to overstate the case. The Planet has been heating for the last 30 or 40 years, and we have shown little concern for the consequences – and in the last ten years the Greenland ice sheets have begun to melt at a much faster rate than predicted.

Close to the Arctic Circle there is not only visible ice, but a lot of water held in the land as permafrost.

I fly from Vancouver to London Heathrow in early spring to visit my father in Southern England. Airlines usually take the most direct route flying north east over the white wilderness of Canada; then over the Labrador Sea before reaching the extensive permafrost and ice sheets of Greenland –  these northern landmasses keep you thinking the great white north will never end. But in the most literal sense, it seems they will, with things now changing more rapidly than expected.

The Arctic is melting faster than was the case 25 years ago when snowfall was countering ice sheet and glacier melts into the ocean. Since 1992 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice has disappeared from Greenland, with water flowing into the Ocean causing a rise in sea levels of 10.6 millimetres – this might not seem a lot, but for every centimetre rise, around 6 million people are put at risk and likely to experience at least one flooding event each year. Inevitably, without action, this can only get worse.

In recent time glaciers have been melting more quickly into the oceans.

Greenland is losing ice 7 times faster than was the case in the 1990s and if the warming continues many millions of people will be exposed to coastal flooding by the end of the century. A current IPCC projection demonstrates that if the situation continues at the present rate the melt from Greenland could push sea levels to rise by 8 or 9 centimetres by the end of the century. If it were just 7 centimetres which is a conservative estimate, the results would still be devastating for coastal areas and low lying communities around the world.

The Annual Arctic Report Card 2019 shows the Arctic is melting at an alarming rate, and much faster than scientists had previously anticipated. Without immediate action melting permafrost could soon release 600 million tonnes of Carbon (C) and Methane (CH4) into the atmosphere.

None of this is speculation – monitoring ice sheets by comparing satellite images over time provides compelling evidence of the problem. Perhaps we should think about this in the  same way we consider a close relative dying – there is never a convenient moment, but it has to be dealt with appropriately.

In the Antarctic scientists are now working on ‘The Doomsday Glacier’ which is falling into the sea at a rate of two miles a year. Thwaites Glacier sits on a vast basin of ice with a front that measures almost 100 miles across. At the point where the glacier approaches the sea the landmass forms a ridge that dips back under the base of the glacier and favours water flowing back landward; and this contact with water is hastening ice melt. It is startling to think that around 90% of the worlds fresh water is locked up in Antarctic ice with Thwaites Glacier presently containing half a meter of potential sea level rise. If the Western Arctic ice sheet should also melt which is possible, the loss will be equivalent to an astonishing 3 metres sea level rise .

If emissions of global warming gases were cut significantly the impact on reducing rising sea levels would be significant, but if temperatures continue to go up things will only get worse. There is still time to react, but as yet not enough is being done to hit global Carbon emission targets. In the end, the necessary changes might be driven by concerns over the dire economic consequences of doing nothing, rather than any loss of life or unfavourable changes to natural environments. As odd as it might seem it might be business interests that push politicians towards better outcomes. 

We are now close to reaching critical turning points which would lead to irreversible changes to the way global systems operate. Scientist might disagree on exactly when these changes will occur, and some changes might not occur all at once, they could perhaps move by degrees; and if we adapt our behaviours to changing conditions we might stave off imminent disaster; but abrupt switching points beyond which there are no returns remain frightening possibilities.

There have already been climate changes directly related to human behaviour and such events can no longer be ignored. Making predictions about almost anything has a degree of variability, and not knowing exactly when irreversible changes will occur, plays into the hands of those wishing to demonstrate that climate change isn’t really happening. Ironically, there is nothing worse than reaching a turning point, only to discover that ‘you’re not quite there yet’, although anything that buys time for leaders to react proactively must be a good thing, but with climate change happening more quickly that anticipated, there isn’ the luxury of too much time.

It is difficult to convince people that things will go wrong before they happen, and often a disaster must occur to precipitate a reaction. On occasions, big companies behave cynical: recognising a potential problem that might prove hazardous, they plough on without making changes, in the hope that profitability will exceed future insurance claims. However, when it comes to the climate emergency, refusing to act proactively is not a realistic option: if there are turning points beyond which we can no longer achieve stability we must act quickly;  many children seem aware of the urgency – politicians… not so much.

If the climate continues to warm, it won’t be a simple matter of fisherman moving further up the beach, lifestyles and even lifetimes will be changed.

With such huge profits being made from fossil fuels it is easy to understand why producers are reticent to give them up.

There has always been an unwillingness to factor in the millions of years of chemical and physical reactions that go into forming high energy fossil fuels, and the problems associated with the release of huge amounts of stored natural energy in such a short space of time has been largely ignored.

It seems we are best at solving immediate short term problems – our brain’s evolutionary course has left it inadequately wired to deal with uncomfortable situations that unfold over longer periods, and it might be necessary to start compensating for our ‘fallibility of thinking’. However, now that climate change is unfolding so rapidly, we might begin to see things more clearly. Run away ice melts in polar regions are just one of many signs of serious change and reinforce the view that 11,000 scientists are unlikely to be wrong about climate change. We must accept the evidence and push our politicians to act appropriately… and most important of all, they must do it soon.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

 

 

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