雨 • Ame • Rain

This morning I woke up to the sound of soft rain on my window. I went from feeling comfortable, to nostalgic, to sad. Comfortable because, like most other people, I really enjoy the sound of rain falling against the windowpanes. There’s something considerably more romantic about it than the constant drone of passing cars (my house is right on one of the main highways in Cape Town). Then I felt nostalgic because I hadn’t heard that sound for so long… and that’s what made me sad.

The drought situation in the Western Cape has become so terribly dire, that our dam levels, last I checked, are at around 10.7% total capacity. We’re scheduled in the next few days to move on to Level 4 water restrictions. We’ve been asked time and time again to reduce water consumption, and to some degree that’s been achieved. But like most issues, once the initial emphasis is lifted, people sort of forget that there was a problem to begin with because it isn’t affecting them directly.

I work in a hardware store on weekends. People have over the past few rainless weeks of winter (when most of our rain is due in this Mediterranean climate) come into the store to buy new fixtures for their taps and hose pipes and pools. Being the idealist I am, I assumed that they were addressing problems that resulted in water wastage: leaking taps, worn pool pipes, and so on. But when I asked some of them, the responses were a little more than disappointing.

“Well I can’t just let my grass die, now can I?”

“We don’t have a grey water system, I can’t just dump my dishwater in buckets on the grass…”

“What’s the point of having a pool if I can’t use it?”

It’s a classic case of ‘that’s not my problem, I pay for this service.’ You know what, Cape Town? It is your dam(n) problem. Having water is not a service, it’s a privilege.

“No, it’s my right.”

Sure. Humans have the right to clean water… but what if there’s no more water available? Whose problem is it then?

I get myself worked up about issues of sustainability and longevity of resources when people have this ‘it’s not my problem‘ attitude towards them. It’s the most frustrating thing. Get with it, people.

/endrant

First field work of 2017: Eastern Karoo

My co-supervisor Sam Jack and I spent another week sampling sites in the Eastern Karoo last week. Last time we were out was in September last year, sampling the icy cold slopes in Sutherland. The situation this time round was quite the opposite.

The eastern-most extent of the Eastern Karoo that we sampled ranged from Colesberg to Middelburg to Cradock (north to south), and comprises the most mesic (wettest) part of the environmental gradient that my MSc research investigates.

Study area - Eastern Karoo. Points labelled "A" are dolerite koppies that have been sampled.

Study area – Eastern Karoo. Points labelled “A” are dolerite koppies that have been sampled. The blue demarcated area shows the central Karoo (encloses sites 2 – 8) and eastern Karoo area (encloses sites 1, and 13 – 18) designated for shale gas exploration.

On day one, we drove all the way up to Colesberg in the Northern Cape (my first time visiting), a 9-hour drive from Cape Town. We stayed in a quaint little caravan park in a tiny bungalow, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes, despite how well-armed I was with my citronella oil burner. I feel like they almost enjoyed the smell of citronella… Alas.

Itchy bites notwithstanding, we sampled near Colesberg and then went in search of accommodation further east. We ended up in Oviston, a small town on the edge of the Gariep Dam (also my first time). What was interesting to see was how lush the vegetation in the grasslands looked compared to the western reaches of my study area, and of the country in general. The landscape was carpeted in green, with some impressive annuals showing their vibrant faces. After a stay at a farmer’s house between Steynsberg and Venterstad, and a day devoid of sampling due to rain, sampling was fairly easy sailing from then on. We missioned between Venterstad and Cradock, sampling four sites along the way, before heading towards Graaff-Reinet for another site, then to Beaufort West and eventually back home to Cape Town.

We were met with thundershowers more than once and, consequently, very muddy district roads. At this point I will mention that we were driving a bakkie with no 4WD – mud was our nemesis. I had many tiny panic attacks along the way because of this (which I suspect Sam enjoyed just a little bit). We had to postpone an entire day of sampling due to weather conditions (it is not advisable to carry aluminium rods up a koppie during a thunderstorm), which we spent catching up on species IDs, digitizing datasheets, and other work (and also a few sneaky episodes of Planet Earth).

Overall it was a very successful trip. Just one more two-week long trip and I’ll be done with my data collection. At this point I’d like to say thanks again to Sam Jack – I literally would not be able to do any of this without him. He is my mentor, my friend, my driver, my field assistant, my photographer, and my Afrikaans translator and diplomat. This degree belongs as much to you as it does to me. Thank you so, so much.

Read the official article for this blog post on the Plant Conservation Unit website here.

Keystone

In an attempt to distract ourselves from scientific writing for a while, I challenged a friend of mine to a short story writing challenge near the end of 2016. The challenge involved providing each other with a single word, which then had to be translated into a short story of no more than 2 pages. It was harder than I thought it would be to get back into the swing of writing fiction. Being primarily a descriptive writer, I spent a lot of time just sitting quietly and letting my brain run on its own – not thinking, but imagining. The word given to me was “keystone“, and this is how it played out.

 

Keystone, by Hana Petersen

I felt her before I saw her.

She had followed me. Her amber eyes stared intently at me, though I avoided looking her way altogether. I didn’t want her to know that I was aware of her presence. I kept my posture confident yet vigilant. I walked through the grass, allowing my fingertips to brush against their awns and collect fine white pollen from the exerted stamens hanging limp in the absence of wind. The pollen clung to me. Her eyes clung to me. I wandered closer to the edge of the grassy plain, eager to be nearer to a more heterogeneous landscape. My heart pounded in my chest. Large, hot beads of sweat poured from my temples down my neck, between my breasts, and down my legs. I suddenly felt the weight of my solitude. Where were the others? The scouting should have ended at second noon, and they should have returned by third. The fourth star now shone brightly at its red zenith, leaving the plains awash with golden hues, and setting her unfaltering amber gaze on fire.

I had to run. My only salvation was that if I knew anything in this world, I knew these plains. I knew the exact spot where I was born, just above the first terrace. Minutes after I was jolted to life, I instinctively knew my way from that terrace to the place where my people gathered water. I could smell it. From the minute I was born, my instincts had guided me across every inch of these plains. I had seen the same instincts in my children. I knew the exact path they followed as they grew accustomed to using their legs, strong like their mother’s, to chase their father as he cantered into the distance to scout. My people had thrived here for aeons, blending in to the tawny grasses that nourished us. When the tawny grasses grew thin at the turn of the season, we would migrate northward to the mountains and allow our land to recover, and then return here to bear our children so that they too would know these plains. These were our plains, and we thrived here, until They came. And when They came, They brought Man with Them.

We had heard about Them and Their Men before. News had travelled from the grasslands in the far East that people were being slaughtered and eaten, and the grasslands cleared for construction of Their dens. Wherever They moved with Their packs of bloodthirsty Men, destruction had followed. Our people, we heard, were shepherded into enclosures and guarded by Men through all four cycles of stars. The Men had even gone so far as to bind and bridle our people, enslaving them for hard labour and transportation until they collapsed of exhaustion. The grasslands far East of here, and our people who resided in them, were laid to waste. Where grasslands once stretched for as far as the eye could perceive, the landscape was now scarred with garish brown mounds of earth and fenced enclosures. Our people were now all but extinct in those parts, and the system was mourning them.

We had been forewarned of Their movements, and had been scouting more and more frequently. We were to evacuate as soon as They showed an intention to invade. The scouts that had gone out at first dawn had yet to return, and now here was this intruder with the amber eyes, eerily alone, as was I. I had no choice. I had to run. I knew she would be after me the moment I tensed my muscles, so I began at a walk. Then a trot. I fixed my eyes on the line of trees beyond the terraces and broke into a gallop. I galloped as fast as my legs would carry me, feeling the sweat fly with centrifugal force from my face and away from the centre of my chest. I could not see her, but I could hear her brushing through the tall grass with remarkable agility. Her legs carried her at a speed that was engineered to challenge us. She was designed a predator, and I the prey. My legs, though strong, could only gallop for so long before they needed rest. My body was heavy. I felt the sweat pour from me in burning hot streams. The air felt thick and viscous in my airways. My hooves pounded the earth with so much force that I felt throbbing all the way up my abdomen and in my shoulders and neck. My veins stood thick and dilated at the surface of my skin. The trees in the distances were still only in the distance. How long had I been running for? When had it become so dark? What were these blotchy figures moving in the grass beside me?

All I remember as I took my last step was the excruciating pain in my left flank. Hit with such tremendous force, and my flesh pierced with something so sharp and unrelenting, I could no longer move. My legs seized. I crumbled to the ground on my haunches, as my torso was thrust forward with yet another blow. As the light faded ever more rapidly, I could still see bright amber eyes – several pairs of them now – peering at me, coupled with menacing growls. I closed my eyes and wished never to reopen them, realizing what must have happened to the others. My people had been stalked and ambushed by Them and Their Men, never to return home. That day, I was hunted and killed by Them, skinned and spit-fired by Their Men, and my carcass tossed comfortingly near to the place just above the first terrace where I was born. Perhaps my death was a better release from this life than to be enslaved to Them and Their Men. Where They went, Man followed. These plains were ours, we thrived here. We held it all together; as we took from it, so we fed back into it. These Men only took, and never gave back. And where Man went, and where They took and did not give back, destruction and collapse was sure to follow.

 

I had a cold-blooded baby

On 7 December 2016 I came across a clutch of small white eggs, about 1 cm in length, hidden comfortably in a crack in a face-brick wall at my home in Cape Town. I knew they were gecko eggs, from having seen a pregnant gecko just once in the previous year:

Found a preggo gecko last night! Hey mama 👀

A post shared by ハナ ピータセン🌸 (@hana.petersen) on

It always intrigued me, and I’d wanted to watch one lay its eggs, and then watch the eggs hatch. So I decided I could at last satisfy the latter – I stole an egg from the clutch and took it with me to UCT to incubate it.

Once I got over my general excitement at having found an egg to incubate (with much excitement in the car on the way to campus, thinking it was about to hatch in my hand), I did some research. I found out that house geckos (Family Gekkonidae, Genus Hemidactylus) took typically between 2 – 6 months (months!) to hatch. This drained my excitement a little bit more. I also found out that the temperature at which the eggs incubate is instrumental in determining the sex: hotter temperatures usually yield males. So here I was, at the end of the academic year, with a baby to incubate. At this point I was being a bit irresponsible… I had come to the conclusion that me holding the egg and moving around so much must probably have made it so that the yolk was now suffocating the embryo. I gave up and placed the egg in my friend’s office in a little box that used to hold a pocket-sized 10x magnifying eyepiece. And there I left it, until we returned to campus in the second week of January 2017.

I picked up the box assuming the egg would still be in tact and the gecko would never hatch. But the box felt different – lighter – when I picked it up. I shook it a bit, and then passed it to my friend, not wanting to see a broken gecko egg with a tiny unhatched embryo. She then opened it and announced that the gecko was staring at her and that we were parents.

image of Gary the gecko

Gary the Gekkonidae

The little guy (we assumed it was male on account of the hot weather conditions over Christmas), christened ‘Gary’ by my supervisor (“You have to call him Gary. Gary the gecko.”), was a resident of my office in the Plant Conservation Unit for two days, fed on ants and a housefly, for two days before we released him into the wild of UCT Upper Campus.

 I hope the little guy is still alive and growing. Cheers, Gary.

On introversion and parallel dimensions

 A (relatively) brief conversation I had with a good friend of mine prompted me to write about this. Both of us are reasonably (with the necessary cautions, of course) taken in by the pseudoscience that is the Myers-Briggs personality test. The test is based on Carl Jung’s typological theory. In his 1920 publication, Psychological Types, Jung identified four key psychological functions, each of which could be experienced in an introverted (i) or extraverted (e) way: thinking (Ti/Te), feeling (Fi/Fe), sensation (Si/Se), and intuition (Ni/Ne). Our personalities, and therefore everything associated with our personalities – such as our engagement with people, our perception of our environments, our sexuality, our conduct, our values and beliefs, and our decision-making processes, to name a few – are thus (very broadly) categorized into one of 16 types:

Extraverted
Introverted

ESTJ

ENTJ

ISTJ

INTJ

ESTP

ENTP

ISTP

INTP

ESFJ

ENFJ

ISFJ

INFJ

ESFP

ENFP

ISFP

INFP

If you’ve not already taken such a test, I would go so far as recommending it – if only just for some fun and light reading. I’ve found that it’s remarkably accurate at categorizing people according to their personality traits. So let’s get into it.

I am classified as INFP – introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving – the ‘idealist’ and the ‘healer/mediator’. My good friend, as an INTP, bearing only one difference in psychological function to me, understandably shares similar sentiments with me. Now if it wasn’t apparent from my previous post, I do often struggle with anxiety. This, in conjunction with introversion, is a tricky path. What I’m getting at is this…

Have you ever had an encounter with someone, and then, long after the encounter is past, still agonized over what you had said, whether anything you said had been offensive, why they had reacted the way that they did, whether you could’ve said something wittier or more relevant…?

*cue resounding nods from the audience*

Me too. Every – Single – Time.

The conversation with my INTP friend was along these lines. I discussed with him the possibility of the existence of parallel dimensions, in which every single alternative scenario of every encounter you have ever had in your life actually exists as a separate dimension, instantaneously, until one of them becomes reality. A myriad parallel dimensions open up as soon as you come into consciousness on a given day, and close as soon as your reality unfolds in your daily life. This morning, a parallel universe existed in which I had yoghurt with granola and papaya, but the dimension which opened up unto me was one in which I had Otees. In a parallel dimension, I was eating veggie noodles at a Chinese restaurant for lunch, but that dimension collapsed in the wake of me eating crackers and cream cheese. Yes, this all sounds delightfully recondite and abstract, but if you’ve ever found yourself wondering about concepts like destiny or fate, then why should parallel dimensions be any less far-fetched?

But, being the empirical scientist that I am, it’s a difficult concept to fully accept. Food for thought, though. The alternatives could exist, in which case all you need to do is to pull them into your reality.

References:
  1. 16 Personalities (©2011-2016 NERIS Analytics Limited) (accessed 30 Nov 2016)
  2. The Association for Psychological Type (accessed 30 Nov 2016)

Personal anecdotes on anxiety in academia

This is definitely one of the trickier topics to discuss, but a number of encounters have convinced me that it’s a good idea to do so, so that something good comes from it. I spent the last two weeks in perpetual silent anxiety about… I wasn’t quite sure what. But that’s just it, isn’t it? People who’ve had similar run-ins with anxiety would understand that it’s never easy to isolate any single incident, any cause, any answer to the question, “What’s wrong?”

The problem could be a single variable, it could be multiple variables, or it could be the interaction between those variables (bit of a dry stats comparison coming through there) – it could even be none of them. But the way to overcome the anxiety and pull yourself back together isn’t always by isolating the cause and working on that like everyone seems to believe… sometimes the way to overcome it is just to acknowledge it and be honest with yourself, most importantly, and then also know the point at which you need to seek help. You yourself should be aware of the people who you feel most comfortable just talking to… not to discuss your problems, but just to find some solace and a sense of acceptance and understanding. From personal experience, it’s sometimes not the best idea to speak to those closest to you as a first resort. The reason is simple. People who love you tend to worry and fuss about you, and if you’ve suddenly come to them feeling not-like-yourself, there will be a fuss. There will be questions, most of which would meet the totally honest answer, “I don’t know” – which more likely than not will be mistaken for concealing true feelings.

“What happened?” – idk

“How are you feeling?” – idk

“Is it something at home? At work?” – idk

The other problem is that often, it’s not really advice that we need…

tumblr_nisvagni2c1qiuiebo1_540

… but instead just someone who listens, who understands, who accepts and doesn’t take offense, and who trusts that we know what we need during that time:

tumblr_o12r57n9tp1qiuiebo1_540

In fact, I found it quite a lot easier to eventually start talking about what I was going through with people who were just colleagues, or people I saw only occasionally, or people I hadn’t seen in ages. Obviously, this differs between people. Some people need some extra encouragement before they actually realise that people genuinely care about them, whether those people are close to them or not. I found my first burst of encouragement in the most unexpected place. During the second week of my little slump, at my lowest low of exhaustion, anxiety, absent-mindedness, uneasiness, and overall emotional disharmony, I received a gift. It was from a visiting researcher from the States, who I had had only a few encounters and conversations with during his time in Cape Town, relatively speaking. The gift itself, and the note that accompanied it, were so thoughtful and so incredibly well-timed that I nearly started crying when I read it. On the off-chance that he sees this post: I really hope that in reading this, you understand how much difference your kind gesture made. From then on, I started being more open and honest about how I was feeling, instead of keeping it all to myself.

tumblr_o56l13hxvz1qiuiebo1_540

I sat down and spoke to my supervisor about it, and how I felt like I had no direction anymore. I spoke to my colleague about how little work I’ve been managing to get done, and how this impacted on my work plan.

tumblr_nzs9xwzqcq1qiuiebo1_540

I spoke to my friend about how completely defeated I felt about the way my data collection was going (I use the word ‘defeated’ here to avoid profanity, but if you’d like a hint as to what I really meant, as well as for some science-related comic relief, click here).

Interestingly, the response I got from my peers, colleagues, and supervisor were remarkably similar: no judgment, no questioning, no fussing, no hurry to give misplaced advice; just a calm sigh, understanding nods, and some words of motivation and real-talk. It was fairly obvious that they’d been there before. And so have a multitude of other scientists around the globe. It is not a new development for a scientist to suffer from anxiety or depression or any other illness (physical or mental). It is, apparently, totally normal. And hearing about others’ experiences really helps to grasp the reality of it and understand how to manage your experiences when they happen.

I won’t go into detail, but I will link a few blog posts on the topic, because I think it’s highly beneficial for people, particularly people in the scientific community and adjacent, to acknowledge and understand some of the points raised. For convenience, here’s a tiny summary (I’m usually terrible at summarising, so be grateful):

  • scientists and academics are not robots
  • as with any challenging, competitive research career, emotions run really high, and people have different ways of coping
  • depending on the person, career stress can either motivate them or tear them down
  • if you’re not going to be supportive of someone who is very obviously experiencing stress or anxiety, please withhold comment, rather than shaming them
  • it’s important to be honest with yourself about the causes of your anxiety, if you’re able to isolate the roots (i.e. don’t blame your work if it’s really because of personal issues, because your work might be essential to you overcoming your anxiety)

The above is by no means an exhaustive list, and again, I highly recommend reading the posts listed below.

Let me end off with an excerpt from one of them:

“[…] we need to be more accepting of diversity in science, including that people with different personalities and different attributes can contribute to science and academia.”

Also, it’s totally okay to cry ❤

A final word of thanks to Sarah Andersen for her super honest and relatable comics featured above (copyrighted to Sarah Andersen), and to Meghan Duffy, an ecologist at the University of Michigan, and the author of a blog called Dynamic Ecology, from which I sourced the posts featured below.


Further reading:
  1. There is crying in science. That’s okay.
  2. Academics are humans with human emotions and problems
  3. Life as an anxious scientist

Book review: ‘Plant: Exploring the Botanical World’

Over the past few months, and in the past few weeks, the theme of ‘nature meets art’ has been a bit of a frequency illusion. From the discussion I had with the PCU a few months ago, to the stunning Plant exhibition at the Kirstenbosch Gardens last month, to the UCT ZooBots Exposure Nature Photography exhibition which will (hopefully) take place early next year – these kinds of events and ideas have been popping up all over the place. Of course, as a result, I’ve been talking about art with anyone who’d listen. Recently, it even came up in a documentary called ‘Before The Flood‘, where Leo DiCaprio talks about how much the 15th century triptych called ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ by Hieronymus Bosch shaped his understanding of our relationship with our planet.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Most of the time, however, I’d be having casual conversations with my friends, showing them the new things I’d pinned on my naturey/artsy Pinterest boards. For interest’s sake, here’s one of them:

 A friend of mine sent me a link to an article about a new book that was published recently by Phaidon, called ‘Plant: Exploring the Botanical World’. I was completely infatuated. So, naturally, I had to buy it – regardless of the blow to my bank account.

Cover image for the book 'Plant: Exploring the Botanical World'

Beautiful cover image of the book ‘Plant: Exploring the Botanical World’, published by Phaidon.

“The ultimate gift for gardeners and art-lovers, featuring 300 of the most beautiful and pioneering botanical images ever.

[…] this fresh and visually stunning survey celebrates the extraordinary beauty and diversity of plants. It combines photographs and cutting-edge micrograph scans with watercolours, drawings, and prints to bring this universally popular and captivating subject vividly to life. […] this stunning compilation of botanically themed images includes iconic work by celebrated artists, photographers, scientists, and botanical illustrators, as well as rare and previously unpublished images.”

It begins with the dust jacket – one of the most elaborate and visually stunning  book covers I’ve ever seen. An array of pleasantly embossed photographs, illustrations and paintings, arranged into a highly satisfying orderly floral structure, with whorls and whorls of vividly colourful images is what greets you. With a total of 315 full-page images of some of the “most beautiful and pioneering botanical images ever”, Plant is nowhere short of stimulation for someone who, like me, is vividly imaginative, capable of visual thinking, highly stimulated by and sensitive to imagery, and hopelessly in love with both botany and visual art. Each page is neatly framed with the artist’s name in the header, and a few short paragraphs on the image in the footer. The image caption tells you the name and date of the art piece, as well as its dimensions, the medium used, and where it is currently being held. Not surprisingly, many of the pieces featured in Plant have found their final resting places in museums and art galleries around the globe; however, some of the most striking works of art (more than I imagined) are privately owned. What’s great about this book is that by exhibiting these privately owned images, the beauty is shared with everyone; otherwise, only very few lucky humans in the world would ever have the pleasure of indulging in it.

Embossed front cover of Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

Embossed front cover

After hours and days and weeks of paging through and reading the descriptions and marvelling at the intricacy and delicateness and creativity of some of the pieces, you finally reach the end. But the end is not the end, because after the last full-page image, you are rewarded with a timeline most magnificent. Beginning at 950 B.C., you are guided through the evolution of botanical art through the ages, all the way through to the year 2011. The timeline details some of the milestones in botanical and botanical art history, with decidedly few positive milestones in botany in recent years.

There are more accounts of a loss of species due to habitat destruction than there are accounts of new species being discovered… new species which urgently need to be discovered if we are to ever have any semblance of a complete knowledge base of the biodiversity that the earth boasts, and the biodiversity that we are collectively killing off by merely living our lives in the way that we do as modern consumers. Full circle, back to the main point of Before The Flood. If we could all understand how much beauty, spirituality, peace, provisioning, and stability we can garner from nature in its purest form – whether it be by spending time in nature, indulging in a beautiful book of botanical art, or by growing up in a city with The Garden of Earthly Delights staring at us everyday, scaring us to no end, reminding us of the seemingly inevitable progression of man into materialistic, consumption-driven hollow vessels – there is a possibility of pulling ourselves away from the edge of the deadly precipice on which we are currently teetering.

Find your inspiration. Find out how environmental issues relate to your life. Find out how you and your family would directly be affected by changes in climate. Find out how those who are less fortunate than you will be affected – those who are already starving and malnourished, or without shelter from the elements, or without water for tens of kilometres. Just spend some time really thinking about it, and then adjust your lifestyle accordingly.

Backyard subsistence & growing green thumbs

Nothing makes me quite as excited as something that fuels my motivation to engage in activities that make my existence and everything in it feel lighter and happier. For those who don’t know me personally, I am a sensitive being. I feel things deeply, but don’t often show it. And when the things happening around me make me feel uncomfortable, or upset, or at a loss, I feel a burning need to just sleep all day, or escape the city for a while. Being in nature, marvelling at it, understanding its complexity – these are some of the things that revive me. Again and again, I have to acknowledge the position I’m in (even more so these days). I am in a position of such incredible privilege – not because I never go hungry, or because I am well-funded, or because I have a home and a relatively normal family-life and a fluffy dog, but because of what I’ve learnt during my studies, and because (thanks to the former) I am able to appreciate things to an extent where simple things are so much more enriching and healing.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate it. In 2013, I did a course for my degree called ‘Life on Land: Plants’ (BIO2012S). I mentioned before that I was initially dead set on studying zoology, but I have never appreciated and enjoyed a course more than I did BIO2012S. After completing that course, I went through a phase of feeling the urge to classify and analyse every plant I encountered. I saw floral diagrams everywhere I looked. Many people I’ve spoken to are of the opinion that I’m worse off for knowing these details about plants. They think it’s sad that I can’t look at a flower and just see a beautiful flower. But the amount of beauty I see in things now, because I know more about them, is deeper than what I saw in them before. Even weeds are beautiful to me now. Even the most nondescript karoobossie is beautiful to me. How many people feel the same way?

More to the point of this post, I also had a rather delayed epiphany about my food… It happened while I was cutting a red pepper to add to my stir-fried rice. I saw its seeds, and I acknowledged all of the energy that went into making them. All of that reproductive effort, from producing flowers to actually forming the fruiting body that we so readily consume, and some people just throw those unwanted seeds in the garbage. I was beginning to realise that vegetables were plants like any other plant, and had the same level of complexity as any other plant. I began to appreciate my food on a deeper level than just being thankful that I had food on my table. I was thankful to the plant itself, and all of the role-players in the processes that made it possible for me to have red pepper in my stir-fried rice. Did you know that capsicum plants are self-pollinated?

peppers-2

Epiphany.

Since then, I’ve been enlightened and inspired by so many people – notably during my 7-week-long (too short!) internship with an NGO called Greenpop. I joined Greenpop at the end of 2014 one week before the last exam of my undergraduate degree. The exam was for my third year Systematics and Macroevolution course – no biggie. It was only one of the toughest courses I’d done, but the exam was relatively painless and I floated through my first week at Greenpop without too much anxiety. When I really had time to get into it, I was properly introduced to my role. My internship was supervised by Matthew Koehorst, who was the head of sustainability at the time. Working with him, and a fellow intern from Stellenbosch University, I was tasked to summarise several new legislative documents on alien plant management, to create a concept note and supplementary information documents for a satellite planting project that was in progress, and to revise the planting guide that was sent to the schools where Greenpop did some of their urban greening outreach projects and workshops. The work in itself was enjoyable, but my working environment was also incredible. The office life at Greenpop HQ felt like working at home with all of my friends. There were so many beautiful quirks about that place. Monday morning was reserved for a catch-up meeting, asking how everyone’s weekend was. Every noon, when the noon gun went off, we’d “hit the deck” (literally drop the floor, regardless of what you were doing seconds before), and the last one down would have to make tea for whoever wanted any. Friday lunch was my favourite – a meal cooked in the office kitchen (which was quite kitted out) and eaten as a family at the table. Sometimes we’d be lucky and have freshly-harvested vegetables from the Greenpop nursery in Woodstock. There’s something about having a meal prepared from vegetables grown with love and goodwill, with a group of people who have become your work-family. Everybody deserves that kind of working environment.

So my mom and I have very recently been trying to grow some things in our humble backyard. While my mom has been tending to the garden for years, I have never really grown anything for myself before. And lately I’ve been thinking about how I wouldn’t be able to survive if the option of purchasing food (instead of growing your own) were to become unavailable. Besides, I should be a bit skaam about the fact that I, a budding botanist, had not yet attempted to grow a plant from seed. So a few months ago, I demonstrated a practical for the ‘Life on Land: Plants’ course. After the practical, I managed to hustle a few sunflower seedlings and a broad bean plant to grow for myself. Prior to this, I had been planning my first planting project, and had therefore been asking people keep aside the compostable coffee cups (used by the coffee vendors on UCT campus) if they bought any coffee during the week. I had quite a number of them by the time I wanted to start planting. So I planted my little sunflower babies in them and took good care of them.

After seeing how well my sunflowers were doing, I decided to try a few more. I planted nasturtium seeds directly into soil, I germinated a lazy housewife bean (which didn’t survive, alas), and I’m currently germinating some green pepper seeds, which I’ll have to plant very soon. My mom, seeing how excited I was to be gardening, also got into the spring spirit as always, so we planted some spring onions and garlic together, both of which are doing tremendously well. It really helps that they’re quick-growing, because there’s this instant gratification in seeing how much your plants have grown each day; it just makes you want to keep planting and keep trying new things.

Thinking about socio-economic issues like food security (or lack thereof), and how much packaging all of our vegetables and fruits come in these days, and being inspired by organisations like Greenpop (who make it look so darn easy) and considering movements like the Food Is Free movement, all I want to do is just grow my own. There have been so many times in my life when I’ve wished I had little photosynthetic endosymbionts beneath my skin, ready to produce carbs for me every time I sat in the sun (something I really love doing), but I guess growing my own food is the closest I’ll get. You won’t know how difficult or easy it is if you haven’t at least tried. Even though we’ve only just started and we haven’t had anything to harvest or pick yet, it feels so rewarding and so worth it. I have big ideas about combining urban gardening, sustainability, art, and capacity building, but I’ll elaborate on that another time. At the moment I should be focusing on my Masters research and seeing how I can incorporate what I learn from my degree into the small-scale social upliftment goals that I have. Still a long way to go…

The Arid Zone Ecology Forum

I was privileged to attend the Arid Zone Ecology Forum (AZEF) in Prince Albert from 3 – 6 October 2016. This year, AZEF celebrated 30 years of research at the Tierberg LTER (long-term ecological research) Nature Reserve. Among the accomplished researchers this establishment hosted are Timm Hoffman (my supervisor), William Bond, Richard Cowling, Mike Picker and Graham Kerley.

From the AZEF website:

The Tierberg Karoo Research Centre was established in 1986, with a 100ha core area in the Prince Albert Succulent Karoo. This site has been a hub of Karoo research over the past 30 years and work at Tierberg has contributed to more than 100 publications on a wide range of topics, including vegetation dynamics, grazing impacts, heuweltjies and rehabilitation. In 2014, the landowner donated the land to the NRF and SAEON has been managing it as an LTER site since then.

The success of the Tierberg LTER is owed largely to Prof Sue Milton-Dean, a botanist, and Dr Richard Dean, an ornithologist, who devoted so much of their lives to its establishment and progress. It was such an honour to meet them, and to hear about their lives and their research. Overall, the conference was such an enriching experience, and I’d like to share some of my memories of it here.

Day one: 3 October

I met up with my fellow conference-goers (Sam Venter, Kervin Prayag, and Elelwani Nenzhelele) on Monday morning. We were all set to leave by around 10AM. After roadtripping from Cape Town by car for four hours, we finally arrived in the quaint Karoo town of Prince Albert. Myself, Kervin, my supervisor Timm, and an internationally renowned arid lands ecologist, Dr Joe McAuliffe (Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, USA), all stayed in the most comfortable little guesthouse called Onse Rus (‘Our Rest’, in Afrikaans).

Dr Joe McAuliffe giving his keynote address

Dr Joe McAuliffe giving his keynote address (photograph by Gigi Laidler)

Some fond memories of the guesthouse include being greeted by two gigantic dogs (named Jackson Brown and Jabulani) and served chocolate cake and tea on our arrival, being seduced by a beautiful black cat throughout our stay, hearing the motivational ‘WOOH-wooooh’ of an owl just outside my window every night, breakfast and interesting discussion every morning with Kervs, Timm, and Joe (I honestly couldn’t have asked for better company), and the gentle smiles of all the staff at the establishment. Having such a peaceful environment to come home to and wake up to really made the entire week so enjoyable and relaxing, despite the long days and the hard work.

That evening was spent at The Showroom Theatre, where the conference was to be held, meeting and making-merry with fellow university students, interns, academics, and researchers from various institutions across South Africa and across the globe.

Day two: 4 October

Tuesday morning kicked off with a keynote address by Dr Joe McAuliffe, shedding some light on his hypotheses surrounding the origins and workings of the mysterious heuweltjie vegetation patterning phenomenon in South Africa. Although the debate is heated, and there are some opposing ideas surrounding the topic within my own department at UCT, McAuliffe spoke clearly and succinctly – even Sue Milton found some clarity on the topic! It’s always interesting when researchers from halfway across the globe bring new perspectives on things we see every day. Just for the record – he’s on the termite side.

After tea, Kervin addressed the audience, presenting his Honours thesis (which is still in progress), titled ‘Do camelthorn trees use sociable weavers to forage for nutrients?’ Despite being the only plant physiologist among a matrix of ecologists, he did tremendously well in explaining his findings very clearly and confidently. The talks thereafter addressed conservation, education, outreach, and renewable energy development in the Karoo. Later that evening before dinner, Sue Milton reflected on the Tierberg LTER and everyone involved in it. It gave some heartwarming and inspiring insight into the amount of love and effort that her and her husband Richard Dean put into their work. I think it’s safe to say that everyone felt a bit nostalgic and strangely motivated after that talk.

Day three: 5 October

Wednesday morning began with a speaker session on livestock grazing patterns and resources. The talks were surprisingly interesting. I had no prior interest in grazing patterns, but I nearly changed my mind after hearing about research which involved the use of innovative technologies such as drones and RPAs to assess the impact of stocking densities, and how high quality livestock is better for improving both the veld condition as well as the livelihoods earned from livestock farming on communal rangelands. It’s always good to know how much difference applied research in these regions can make, not just on the quality of the land and ecosystems, but also on the livelihoods of the people who interact with these ecosystems.

Tea time was reserved for an extended poster session, where I (and about ten other students, including ecologists, social scientists, and systematists) had to stand by our posters and explain them to anyone who found them interesting. My poster gave an overview of my Masters research, and some preliminary results. The few people who came to chat to me all seemed more interested in my sampling approach (Whittaker plots), and I didn’t hesitate one bit to explain how intense, and intensive, the method is for obtaining species richness data. I also had a look around at the other posters (my colleagues Sam and Elelwani also presented posters, on rePhotoSA and more MSc research, respectively), and I was suitably impressed by the quality of work being done in the arid zone. It was all a very enriching experience, and made me throw my anxiety away and just talk to people.

azef18

The amazing PCU team, posing with Joe McAuliffe (second from left) and Helga van der Merwe (second from right). I respect and appreciate every single one of these people.

In the afternoon, we went on one of four planned excursions. The options were the Tierberg LTER, Wolwekraal Nature Reserve located just outside of Prince Albert, a Karoo BioBlitz (which I chose), and a trip to Tarkaskuilen to see some unconventional grazing methods. So you’re probably wondering what a BioBlitz is. Essentially, it’s a few hours spent walking around an allocated area, snapping photographs and recording every plant species observed, and uploading said photographs to iSpot, in the hopes of improving the existing distribution maps for several species. To me, this was the most fun I could’ve asked for.

Here are a few photographs from the BioBlitz:

Day four: 6 October

The last day of AZEF finally dawned. I donned my lucky grey pompom socks (yes, I have lucky grey pompom socks), chucked on the pretty shirt that I had been wanting to wear since my sister gifted it to me in the dead of winter, chugged some breakfast, and seated myself neatly at the end of an aisle of seats so that I could sweat in peace. As you may have realised, I was slightly anxious. Okay, I was a nervous wreck. I barely heard anything that Ute Schmiedel, a highly respected researcher who spoke before me, had to say. When she finished, I heard my name being introduced, my body moved itself to the stage, I couldn’t see a damn thing because of the spotlight shining on my (probably sweaty/oily) face, and I delivered my talk. Honestly, I remember nothing apart from one moment of clarity when I used the laser pointer and said,

“I’d like to direct your attention to this slope, and the adjacent washes of the river here – you’ll see a slight increase in dwarf shrub cover.”

And then I was back in my seat, still sweating, but relieved. When I sat down, I got a funny look from Kervin, and he said, “I think you just won it.”

I didn’t actually think he was right. But whaddaya know, I won first prize for “best oral presentation by a young scientist”. Given that this was the first conference I’ve ever presented at, I was very surprised, but overall quite pleased. I was happy to do Timm proud – he was the one who coerced me into presenting my Honours thesis in the first place, because he thought my work was something worth sharing. Someone once told me that having even just one person truly believe in you is all the motivation you need. I had Timm, my mom, and the rest of my immediate family and friends all believing in me. I’m so ridiculously lucky. At this point I’d like to give Kervs an honourable mention as well: he claimed second prize for best oral presentation. Superb job, Mr Prayag, and thanks for listening to my presentation about three more times, and finally understanding the actual point of it a whole year after hearing it for the first time last year.

The rest of that afternoon and Friday morning was spent exploring Prince Albert a little bit. We visited a beautiful photographic exhibition, went to a really cute coffee shop called Lah-di-dah (where I met my patronus, a calico cat by the name of Grietjie), and then hightailed it back home to Cape Town. It was such an incredible experience, and I am privileged to have met and interacted with all of these inspiring researchers from other institutions. I’m left with a feeling of renewed motivation and eagerness to dive into my Masters research and do my best.

Thank you Prince Albert, you beautiful little Karoo gem.

The role of art in conservation

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the web application called Pinterest. It allows you to bring all your ideas into one creative space by ‘pinning’ searchable images from the web, and/or uploading your own images from your device. You can create mood boards for planning a project, recipe ideas, or renovating your kitchen, and so on. I spend a lot of time on Pinterest, and I have several boards devoted to visual art, particularly illustrations and watercolour painting – something I indulge in from time to time. There was a time a few months ago when I sat in bed for perhaps three hours straight, pinning images of botanical art. To be honest, it was probably because my literature review was due at the time, and I was reaching the tipping point of procrastination where enlightened productivity finally kicks in. But there was a reason apart from my procrastination that made it possible for me to sit there for three hours and look at these paintings: they were captivating, and they stirred something inside of me.

I should mention that my level of skill with regard to illustration and watercolour is really not that high – at best I can sketch a plant from a photograph so that it’s only slightly disproportionate; my watercolour technique is a bit less constrained and more expressive – I like to see the colours run and the pigments leach toward the edges. But skill and receptiveness are two different things. I am highly receptive and highly sensitive to images. My mood can switch instantly if I see a baby panda, or a kitten (happy Hana) or perhaps an orangutan in a zoo, or a child in a rubble grave in Syria (distraught Hana). So understandably, during my rampant art pinning spree, I had a thought. Let me explain this thought in the form of a little psychological exercise.

How do you feel when you see this?

The White River in Bainskloof, by Gwelo Goodman (1871 - 1939)

The White River in Bainskloof, by Gwelo Goodman (1871 – 1939)

And this?

Evening, Riversdale Veld, painted by J E A Volschenk (1853 - 1936)

Evening, Riversdale Veld, painted by J E A Volschenk (1853 – 1936)

Perhaps you just thought they were pretty, or average, or interesting. Or perhaps you felt this abstract tugging feeling in your abdomen that pulled you in and made wish you were in that place right now, and made you hope that it always remains as pristine as it looks… or maybe that’s just me. Either way, I’m not the only human in history who acknowledges and understands the capacity of landscape paintings to stir emotions in people.

A few months ago, I chaired a discussion with the Plant Conservation Unit on historical paintings, repeat photography and the value thereof in terms of ecological research and conservation. Landscape paintings (and art in general) lends itself to some degree of artistic liberty. For example, an artist might like how a certain tree looks, and would therefore paint that tree more often than it actually occurs in the landscape, resulting in a misrepresentation of abundance. Repeat ground photographs, while they have a similar objective to that of landscape paintings (i.e. capturing the beauty or intrigue of a landscape), overcome this artistic liberty in that what you see is what you get. And while scientific analysis on these types of historical records may be slightly restricted to qualitative data, and quantitative only to a certain degree, this does not diminish their value to research and applied conservation.

Conservation, when approached from the top down, can go awry in many ways. There are countless examples of fortress conservation resulting in communities becoming marginalised, livelihoods being taken away or highly restricted, and people feeling isolated, excluded and becoming detached from the very areas that those in authority wish to conserve. But when communities and the general public mobilise to achieve some conservation objective, the results are almost always positive. It is my firm belief that appealing to the compassion of the general public by means of honest but emotive imagery, like these landscape paintings, is one way of mobilising support.

Alexander von Humboldt, a well-known geologist, naturalist, philosopher and explorer of his time, agreed with the sentiments of artists and fellow nature-lovers Jacob P. Hackert and Johann W. von Goethe about human history being an integral part of nature. He acknowledged that a landscape’s character is determined by the specific symbiosis installed locally between men and their habitat.

“The knowledge of the natural character of each different region of the world is intimately tied to human history and culture.” – A. von Humboldt

In 1807, Humboldt published a small book called ‘Aspects of Nature’, which outlined what he understood as the summary of the experience of his five-year trip through the Americas, in the form of a collection of ‘Paintings of Nature’. He wanted to offer the reader a Totaleindruck – a full impression – obtained by a detailed analysis of the local phenomena that composed the physiognomy of each specific segment of our planet. In particular, he tried to capture the climatic ‘segments’ he encountered on his trip in his paintings. I find it so beautiful how simply and seamlessly he managed to merge his love of art with his insatiable interest in science and the natural environment. I think this is something many of us have lost touch with – we try to separate our jobs from our hobbies because we don’t want our hobbies to feel like work. But what if you could combine all of your interests into one project? Think about your job. Think about your hobbies and your passions. Do they align? Now think of how much innovation could come from their integration.

One of the points agreed upon in the discussion I chaired was that there is a lack of interdisciplinarity amongst departments which could be extremely beneficial to causes that extend far beyond just academia. There’s this notion that is prolific with the science snobs among us, that suggests the Humanities are laughable degrees. Not true. Sure, Humanities degrees may not directly aid or inform the numerous pressing contemporary issues prevalent in most developing countries. But Humanities graduates do people. But here’s another exercise: try to mobilise a layman to conservation action by showing him (with no further discussion or debate) your scientific article in whichever journal. See if he even reads the whole thing. And then consider the Humanities again.

Here’s an excerpt from the news article on the PCU website regarding the discussion I mentioned earlier:

“When considering the place of humans in nature, the discussion also touched on the influence of the Arts on conservation efforts. While peer-reviewed scientific articles may appeal to academics, they necessarily lack emotion – something that is often crucial to spur people into action. It was concluded that artists and scientists can and should work together to create awareness about conservation issues.”

And now I have more ideas…