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.

Advertisements

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…