Monthly Archives: October 2016

Tuggie lanterns, Hallowe’en, and the botany of festivities

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The plant that most people now associate with the 31st October Hallowe’en festivities is, of course, the pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo).   Carved into hideous faces, pumpkin jack o’lanterns are supposed to ward off evil spirits.  But it was not always so; in Britain and Ireland, where these traditions originated, other vegetables were used.  In the north east of England, as a child, we carved large turnips (varieties of Brassica napus or B. rapa) into “tuggie lanterns”, the word tuggie being a colloquial term for that vegetable.  Proudly displaying our string-hung lanterns, we’d walk around the local neighbourhood trying to scare each other.

This tradition has a long history, going back at least to the 17th century.  Theres a great painting from 1838 by artist William Henry Hunt called The Turnip Lantern, which captures the juvenile excitement of Hallowe’en, even if the lantern itself is rather tame by modern standards.  Given that Hallowe’en is supposed to be derived from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain it is interesting that there appear to be n0 earlier references than this. Did Shakespeare or any of the other Tudor playwrights not mention them, nor any of the Mediaeval writers?  Perhaps they did but it’s not been widely acknowledged.

The “botany of festivities” (i.e. plants, particularly non-edible ones, associated with specific annual events or periods of the calendar) is a fascinating area of study that spans both biodiversity and cultural history. I’m particualrly interested in how traditional festivals exploit novel (but analogous) plants when they travel with immigrants to new parts of the world.  The pumpkin is an obvious example, but there are others, e.g. the use of a New World mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) at Christmas in the USA, in the absence of European mistletoes (Viscum album). The reverse of this also occurs, i.e. the incorporation of non-native plants into traditional rituals and festivities, such as the use of Forsythia (a mainly Asian genus) as a decoration in early spring in some parts of Scandinavia.

Yesterday evening, Karin, our sons Oli and James, and myself indulged in some pumpkin carving, and I relived my youth with a small turnip (see the photograph above).  Happy Hallowe’en everyone!

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Spiral Sunday #6 – Journey by Charlotte Mayer

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For this week’s Spiral Sunday I’ve captured an image of a piece of sculpture I’ve known and loved, and regularly walked past, for over 20 years, as it sits prominently outside the main restaurant at the University of Northampton’s Park Campus.

Journey by sculptor Charlotte Mayer depicts a flattened, ridged spiral shape cast in bronze. Like most people, when I first saw it, I assumed that Journey represented a stylised fossil ammonite.  But I recall reading (or hearing?) that in fact it was inspired by a seed, possibly of a species of Malvaceae, but I may be mis-remembering.  Can anyone enlighten me?

Accompanying the sculpture is a plaque that includes a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding:

“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Journey originally sat within a small raised pond that was frequently empty other than for wind-blown trash.  I was happy to see this week that the pond has been filled in and planted with a diversity of pollinator attracting flowers.  A much more fitting setting for a lovely piece of art.

This week’s Spiral Sunday is dedicated to my wife Karin, who is starting an end and contemplating a beginning, in true spiral fashion.

 

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Scientist as Poet as Scientist – from Dark Mountain 10

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What follows is the text from an article that has just been published in Dark Mountain issue 10. Click on that link and you can read more extracts from this volume of poetry, prose, and illustration, and even purchase a copy.  Dark Mountain 10 focuses on “poetics”, hence the title and topic of my contribution.

The Dark Mountain project is a fascinating, vibrant, loose network of writers, thinkers, musicians and artists, whose work and ideas I’ve discussed previously (see:  Up a mountain darkly and We are so very ‘umble).  It’s a great achievement that they (we) have made it to ten issues; here’s to the next 10.

 

Poet as Scientist as Poet

For as long as I can recall I have been a scientist. Early memories as a child include turning over rocks and probing under bushes in search of elusive insects, dissecting knowledge from road kill, and splitting it from fossil-rich shale. But also, for as many years as I can remember, I have created poetry. Sometimes this has been permanent written text, other times only thoughts and fragments, committed to temporary memory and ultimately lost like the bugs I studied in jars and released back into the wild. Over time the science has become public-facing as hobbies were turned into a career. The poetry remained turned inward, written for myself, only occasionally on show to lovers or to audiences at local spoken-word events.

Perhaps the idea of scientist as poet is too contradictory to bear serious scrutiny, but both of these aspects of my life relate to a deep, enquiring curiosity that has always been present. Both reflect a need to understand something of this complex, confusing world we inhabit, and the place of people and their relationships with one another, and with the environment in a wider, encompassing nature.

In the first volume of Dark Mountain I stepped out as a scientist-poet and contributed an essay-with-poetry entitled ‘W(h)ither Science?’, which was a very personal take on the role of scientists, and the knowledge they generate, in the early 21st century. This piece was framed within the context of Uncivilised ideas of ‘what happens when it all goes wrong?’ I prefer to think of it as ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ because, as I originally put it, ‘knowledge is not predictable’. In other words, we don’t know what will happen in the future, so we can only prepare for a range of outcomes. If we take the best of the sciences and of the arts, and of the education they generate, perhaps we can survive as a species and as a set of communities.

Was that really only six years ago? So much has happened in the intervening period; the science has turned ever more outward, with more writing for scientific journals, magazines, my blog, and more presentations of the research undertaken by my group to other scientists, to policy makers and NGOs, and to the public. The poetry, meanwhile, has remained private, which led me to consider whether it was time to give up a little more. The two short poems in this essay were both written more than ten years ago, though they have been revised and polished periodically. Even as I began to construct this piece I was revising words and reconsidering sentence structure, much as I might revise the analysis of a data set or reconsider its interpretation when writing a scientific paper. One of the things I love about producing poetry is that its form is malleable, it’s never complete, I can change it when I wish. This malleability is also a feature of science: we revise our ideas when confronted with new evidence, rejecting previously supported hypotheses in favour of more accurate notions of the universe.

 

Chains of Copper, Locks of Lead

Mention a river:
I may have heard of it,
Or talked to a woman who has gazed at its bed.
Cage its waters, bind its banks,
With chains of copper, and locks of lead.

Ultimately bending to time, eroding
The surge and the volume sustaining, removing.

Weighed down, I lay down,
And the river unconscious
Passed over my body and on to the sea.
While my lover cast stones from the bank to the current.
The banks of my body, the river of me.

 

Due to their inherent chemical properties, both lead and copper are relatively ductile, weak metals: they cannot withstand the force of a river indefinitely. In the same way, no matter how much we believe we can tame rivers or seas or any other component of the natural world, ultimately the environment will prevail. It just takes time. We might canalise a river to prevent flooding or dam it to provide hydro-electricity, but not realise that in its untamed state the river is more valuable, as it provides food, allows travel, brings fertility to flood plains. What, then, does it mean to ‘know’ something about a river? Whose knowledge is more valuable, which expert do we trust? The internet is awash with information, but knowledge, first and second-hand, can both enlighten us and sometimes prevent us from really understanding.

 

Ordinary by Choice

She chose the route and chose her topics,
Modular waypoints across years of work.
Decisions based on the balance of a gyroscopic
Pursuit of life, work, and an honours degree.
Finally, she elected to be
Ordinary by choice.

 

A student who chooses not to complete a final year dissertation
module – and so graduate with Honours – but rather exit university with an Ordinary degree, is described as ‘Ordinary by choice’. The phrase strikes me as both poetic and prophetic. Could anyone choose to be ‘ordinary’, and even if they could, is such a thing desirable? Is the course of a simple, ordinary life preferable to one that is complex and extra-ordinary? Does anyone truly believe that their experience of our rich, intricate world, in which decisions are made about priorities and ‘balance of life’, is ordinary, no matter how they make a living or what they do to fill their days?

Education in its widest sense, both formal and informal, taught and autodidactic, is a constant and destinationless journey that takes us from ignorant to less-than-ignorant. It is no coincidence that we use the same word (‘course’) in education, and to describe a river, and a life. A river’s function, as far as people are concerned, depends on choices that we make as to its course and fate. But even without human intervention that course naturally shifts over time and its destination is not necessarily the sea: much depends on geological events and the resulting topography of the land, at time scales uncaptured by the course of an individual’s experience.

The scientific research that I undertake is an attempt to capture truths about the ecological functioning of our planet and how it underpins human societies, no matter how technological or industrialised. It takes collected, often hard-won, data, internally scrutinises it for meaning, and externalises the findings into tables, graphs and written texts, that may influence other scientists or emerge in government reports or policy documents. My poetry takes ideas, emotions, feelings, and projects that mix of internal and external worlds into forms that sometimes, but not always, make sense to me. Empirical truths and emotional truths are not the same thing, and in fact may be contradictory and counter-factual. But empirical rationalism and emotional construction can coexist, and often do within the minds and personalities of scientists. Most do not produce poetry, but every scientist I know is emotionally invested in their subject and openly describes their science in terms of delight, rage, obsession, elation and disappointment, every bit as intense as any poet.

 

The full reference for this is:

Ollerton, J. (2016) Scientist as Poet as Scientist  Dark Mountain 10: 185-189

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Spiral Sunday #5 – Pre-Columbian Pottery

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Two spirals for the price of one in my fifth Spiral Sunday post.  This photo was taken during our recent trip to Denmark that I described in “Why do bumblebees follow ferries?“.  These South American pots are part of a Pre-Columbian ceramics collection at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen.  Well worth a visit if you are in the city – it’s an amazing museum.

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John Clare: Landscape & Learning – Northampton – 11th November

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Following my recent post about John Clare’s poem “Wild Bees“, I’ve been invited to give a short presentation on this at a forthcoming meeting about the Northamptonshire poet and documenter of environmental change.

 

Here’s the details:

John Clare: Landscape & Learning

Short presentations & discussions on aspects of John Clare

Venue: Room MY120 University of Northampton, Avenue Campus, NN2 6JD

 

FRIDAY 11th NOVEMBER: 10am arrival – 4pm close

 

Culminating with the JOHN CLARE LECTURE 2016 to be given by Professor John Goodridge

 

Contributors include: Jeff Ollerton, Erin Lafford, Charles Bennett, Clare Abbatt, Christy Edwall, Stephen Sullivan, Carry Akroyd, on topics such as:

John Clare’s Sonnets * Clare & the Bees * Clare the Fiddle Player * Clare as Inspiration * Clare & Weather * ‘The Nightingale’ * Clare in the Fields * ‘St Martin’s Eve’

Free and open to all. Bring lunch or use cafeteria on site.

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Spiral Sunday #4 – from SCAPE

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This Spiral Sunday post is coming from the SCAPE conference, where  a bunch of us are sitting in the foyer of the Abisko tourist accommodation centre, waiting for a minibus to get us to Kiruna airport.  I took the photograph last night – it’s a close up of a woven place mat.  Spirals are everywhere, if you look closely….

Looking forward to getting home late tonight and seeing Karin and the family (including cats and chickens).

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“I want to see the bright lights tonight” – the 30th annual SCAPE conference part 1

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The 30th annual Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology (SCAPE) meeting is taking place at its northern-most, and most remote, venue. We are at Abisko in Sweden, 68O N and 195km inside the Arctic Circle. It’s not too cold at the moment, but there is ice starting to form on the many lakes in the area, and the trees are leafless. It’s a stunning, sparse location for the conference.

About 75 of us have gathered to hear a wide range of talks on all matters related to pollinators and pollination. The programme kicked off at 1925 on Thursday evening when five participants discovered that they were speaking in the first session after a hard day of travelling. I’d been awake since 0330 that morning so was not as receptive to the science as I should have been… Yesterday was much better, in that I was more awake, but it was still quite an intensive day that culminated in my own talk on spatio-temporal stability in a plant-pollinator interaction on Tenerife.  Being last speaker in a session is a mixed blessing and needs a good story to keep people awake.  But I’m not best able to judge if I succeeded.

The quality of the science, and of the presentations, has so far been very good. Here’s a selection of just a few other things I’ve learned or that have intrigued me during the first half of the conference:

Individual pollen grains can be stained a variety of fluorescent colours by a new marking technique involving “quantum dots” (Bruce Anderson)

We are still a long way from understanding all of the subtle ecological and behavioural effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and pollinations (Juho Lämsä and Dara Stanley)

There are serious prospects of us being able to track individual pollinators across landscapes using drones (Tonya Lander)

Active “stigma rubbing” by anthers to promote self pollination has been documented for using time-lapse photography (Mohamed Abdelaziz)

The outcomes of competition for pollinations and reproductive interference between co-flowering plant species are complex and certainly not always predictable (Sharon Strauss and James Rodger)

The title of this post refers to a great song by Richard and Linda Thompson called “I want to see the bright lights tonight” and reflects everyone’s desire over to see the aurora borealis during this meeting. We had a brief encounter with the northern lights on Thursday evening, but they were pale and obscured by clouds. Perhaps tonight will be brighter. Before that we have another full day of talks to look forward to, and I’ll try to report back before we leave tomorrow.  For now, breakfast is calling.

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Ivy pollinators citizen science project

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Today, finally, after several years of hunting for them in Northamptonshire, I got to see some Ivy Bees (Colletes hederae) and managed to get a couple of decent photos.  The Ivy Bee is a recent natural colonist to the British Isles, having arrived here in 2001.  The Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) is running an Ivy Bee Mapping Project and you can find out more details by following that link.

The bees we saw today were a few minutes walk from the University and were (it’s galling to admit) discovered by Fergus Chadwick, a keen young ecologist who is working with me for a couple of months to gain some postgraduate research experience.

The main thing that Fergus is going to work on is a Pollinators of Ivy Monitoring Project.  Follow that link and it will give you details of how you can provide us with data to better understand the pollination ecology of one of our most ecologically valuable and under-rated plants.  Ivy (Hedera helix) is a hugely important nectar source to a wide range of over wintering bees, flies, beetles, hoverflies, wasps, and other insects.  Not only that but its berries are a vital food source for many fruit eating birds.  Any and all help in this project is very much appreciated!

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Spiral Sunday #3 – Blackberries

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For the third of my Spiral Sunday posts I’m using a photograph I originally took for an old post from 2014 called Blackberry Week, which was about how the timing of the seasons (and specifically autumn) have changed since I was a kid.  Seems appropriate this month, at least from a northern hemisphere perspective.

The blackberries were wild ones picked from the garden.  It’s not immediately apparent but there is also a spiral on the plate, so this is a two-for-one post.

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International Wildlife Gardening Conference – 23rd November

20160702_100724An International Wildlife Gardening conference is to be held at the Natural History Museum in London on 23rd November this year, organised by the Wildlife Gardening Forum.  The theme is:  “What European wildlife and nature gardeners can learn from each other” – very apt in these post-Brexit times.  The cost is £50 for the day (including lunch) and you can book by following this link.

Here is the programme for the day:

10.00 Registration and tea/coffee

10.30 Introduction and background; The Forum and the Wildlife gardening movement in England and Wales – Dr Steve Head (WLGF)

10.50 Nature gardening in Germany: an historical view from the start to today. How useful is the concept of native plants for wildlife? – Dr Reinhard Witt (President of Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

11.25 Naturgarten e.V.: nature-oriented design in gardens, educational institutions and public space in an era of climate change – Ulrike Aufderheide (Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

12.00 Lunch and networking (optional guided tour of the Wildlife Garden)

1.30 Biodiversity path in a heritage park: a case study – Jérôme Constant and Carole Paleco (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) (Afternoon Session Chair: Andrew Salisbury)

2.05 Looking for oases – Marianne van Lier and Willy Leufgen (Stichting Oase [Oasis Foundation], Netherlands)

2.40 Tea/coffee

3.00 Looking after our roots and the brown stuff – Sarah Rubalcava (Ireland)

3.35 19 years of Garden for Life: working together to promote wildlife gardening in Scotland – Dr Deborah Long and Juliette Camburn (Garden for Life Forum, Scotland)

4.10 Panel session with speakers (led by Adrian Thomas)

4.30 Summing up and Close

(Please note; this programme may be subject to late changes)

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