Monthly Archives: September 2014

Portrait of Living Wind

Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon.  Photo: Scientific American

Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon.
Photo: Scientific American

A century ago this month, the world’s last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) died in the Cincinnati Zoo, long after the last passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild. The passenger pigeon, once populous beyond imagining, took only a century to disappear.

It seems that more than one factor was responsible for the population decline and how well the passenger pigeon thrived, from breeding habits (they bred communally in large flocks, and didn’t breed in captivity) to human influence (hunting, habitat loss and deforestation).

To a 19th-century European hunter sitting in the middle of a vast colony of the birds, though, it must have seemed like endless flocks of passenger pigeons were just the way of the world. When the first alarms were raised, including an 1857 bill in Ohio to control hunting and protect the birds, the overall response was simple disbelief.



“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” (Wikipedia) Subsequent efforts over the next 40 years were fruitless.

And so to the declines in the shorebirds of the Eastern Hemisphere, epic migrations that take place between Australia and the Arctic along the eastern coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and along the Yellow Sea. An estimated 36 bird species, their populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have used the flyway for most of human memory. Their numbers are dwindling. Very quickly.

Some species, including the curlew sandpiper, have seen their numbers collapse by up to 95% over the past few years alone. The culprits? Hunting, habitat loss, deforestation. And yes, there are several international agreements in place meant to protect migratory birds and their habitats.

It would seem the people doing the agreeing and the people doing the hunting and developing don’t share common goals.

Or maybe the hunters and developers and those who support their right to action just don’t believe in extinction.

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900. Source: Wikipedia

Remains of the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon, shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio, March 1900.
Source: Wikipedia

In 1947, Aldo Leopold said of the passenger pigeon, “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

When will we, then the marshes, and finally the shores, begin to forget the last shorebird?

Or have we already begun?


Stopwatch Pause


Yesterday I promised myself, while out running, that I would not dally to take pictures. And before that thought had even come to an end in my inner monologue, I came around a corner and saw an oak tree ablaze in the first autumn sunset of the year.

So I switched off my stopwatch, climbed under the electric fence (it’s meant to keep the horses in, not me out, right?) and stood very close to but not within a perilous patch of stinging nettle to catch a bit of equinox 1_3

The newly orange and yellow leaves on the oak are not necessarily set apart from the golden hue of the sun’s rays in the last moments before it dipped below the crest of the Jura mountains.

The phone camera, wonder of technology that it is, still isn’t quite made for this kind of light – or perhaps I should say, in my impatient and unskilled hands, it wasn’t easy to catch both detail and light.

I opted for light.

Welcome, 3


Science and Peace: CERN at 60


Last week I had the privilege of attending a series of lectures, 60 Years of Science for Peace, held in the CERN Globe as a part of the celebration to mark CERN’s 60th anniversary. Considering we live just down the road from the Globe, I didn’t have far to travel, but it’s a nice journey to take nonetheless.

The CERN Globe, an exhibition and lecture hall. Photo: Jean-Claude Rifflard/CERN

The CERN Globe, an exhibition and lecture hall.
Photo: Jean-Claude Rifflard/CERN

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was founded in the 1950s as a research institution, but it also had a key secondary function: that of fostering cooperation and collaboration between countries that had only just emerged from World War II. It provided a place where scientists could work together across political, linguistic, cultural and national lines by sharing research goals, methodology, resources and outcomes.

People from countries that had been at war worked side-by-side. Throughout the Cold War, CERN was one of the places where lines of communication remained open across the Iron Curtain.

There have been countless side benefits and developments over the decades that are the direct or indirect result of research done through CERN, from medical advances to computer technology, but seems particularly fitting that one of CERN’s major collateral contributions was the creation of the World Wide Web as a means of facilitating communication.

Sitting around me at the lectures were rows of CERN scientists, most of whom communicate with one another in English or French – but who come from dozens of different countries around the world.

CERN at 60 Source: CERN

CERN at 60
Source: CERN

One aspect of life at CERN that I’ve always found interesting is that while the scale of science that goes on there might be grand, the atmosphere is relaxed and collegial. The main cafeteria at lunch time is packed, abuzz, and the long tables and close seating encourage conversation.

Having lunch at the CERN cafeteria might mean sitting amongst a few Nobel laureates, or it might not – but what is striking is how much of the casual conversation in shared languages revolves around the free exchange of ideas. And it’s all open to the public.

This is the opposite of academics toiling away in an ivory tower.

So today I’d just like to tip my hat to the work of an organization that does more than just research the fundamentals of physical world: Truly open discussion and communication between people of vastly different backgrounds and beliefs is one of the best means of immunizing against misunderstanding and prejudice, whether intellectual or otherwise.

Come On Over


“Peaches, ripe for the picking,” my neighbour tells me from atop his tractor as he passes by. “We can’t eat them all.”

No need to ask me twice. This morning I headed over with an empty picking sack.

The peachy corner of the neighbour's garden, which was established in the late 19th century.

The peachy corner of the neighbour’s garden, which was established in the late 19th century.

I’ll be honest, in all the years I’ve lived next door to this farm, I thought they only had one kind of peach. Pêche de vigne, vineyard peaches, of which there are several types.

The one grown next door isn’t a pretty variety on the outside, it looks a bit rough, a cowboy peach that’s been out in the weather too long and smoked a few hundred too many cheroots.

Pêche de vigne.

Pêche de vigne.

But there are two heavily laden peach trees, and the second is bending with the weight of green peaches that look vaguely unripe, but are soft to the touch and ready for harvest.

The green-yellow peaches, soft and ripe.

The green-yellow peaches, soft and ripe.

I’m happy to say I took a few of them, too. Because while I have no idea what this kind of peach is called (there are over 2000 kinds of peach), it’s a revelation of taste.

Tangy peach scent with a hint of vanilla, and the flavour is crisp with an aftertaste of honeydew melon.

The first small plate of harvested peaches, the first of many.

The first small plate of harvested peaches, the first of many.

The scent of the pêche de vigne is completely different, a heady mix of sweet and rich red earth. The flesh looks like it’s been steeped in port wine, and that’s pretty much what it tastes like, too.

In the past I’ve made sorbet using these red peaches with a dash of port, and if I do say so myself, it’s not bad.

I was under the close supervision of this guy, who was sitting in the sheep meadow on the other side of the fence.

I was under the close supervision of this guy, who was sitting in the sheep meadow on the other side of the fence.

I foresee a large amount of peach jam, preserved peaches, peach pie and peach sorbet in my near future.

Thanks, neighbour!

What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VII)


According to the website Wars in the World, as of 11 September 2014, there are currently ongoing conflicts classified as ‘wars’ in 64 countries; there are conflicts involving of 567 militias, guerrilla and separatist groups.

The conflicts are based on everything from ideological and religious issues to narcotics to territorial disputes. There are a few very high profile confrontations, hundreds of others that, like dangerous embers, continue to burn and flare into flame.

Armed aggression is immediate, it’s acute, it demands an answer and it threatens force regardless of the answer given. We usually have a good idea of who threw the first stone, or at least, who is throwing stones at one another.

The Consequences of War (1637-38) Peter Paul Rubens

The Consequences of War (1637-38)
Peter Paul Rubens

Of course we pay attention when conflict requires. Conflict demands all our energy, our resources, our media focus, our politics.

This month marks the world’s highest number of refugees displaced by conflict – over 51 million – since WWII. There are entire groups of displaced persons who have not been able to return to their homelands for years, sometimes decades, after the initial conflict has ended.

If we measure the level of conflict by the number of people affected and displaced, we are at a sad high-water mark.

When it comes to people displaced by environmental deterioration, including land loss and degradation, as well as natural disaster, the estimated number of refugees varies wildly. The very definition of environmental refugees is disputed and complicated, because the fundamentals of environmental change are complicated in themselves.

How many people have been displaced due to loss of habitat? It’s estimated that the Dust Bowl drought (1930-1940) in the United States initiated a migration of 3.5 million people. Current estimates around the world place numbers in the tens of millions.

From the photo series 'A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh' Photo: Munem Wasif

From the photo series ‘A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh’
Photo: Munem Wasif

There is no obvious aggressor when rivers overflow and flood – was it a rainy year? Was the water infrastructure poorly conceived? Was land for housing and industry located too close to flooding areas? When water runs out, is it due to drought, or land mismanagement, poor farming techniques, or livestock overgrazing, or all of the above?

And the fix is just as complicated as the problem, maybe more so, because it requires a complete rethinking of how we do things.

But we know how to do aggression, violence, war and we know how to react.

Which is why what we talk about when we talk about war is just one thing: War.

While we focus all our resources on the immediate threat, the bright spotlight of world attention leaves everything else in the shadows.

Newness, Past and Present


I noticed two items this week regarding species previously unknown to us. They’ve both been labelled ‘new’, although they are anything but new.

The first is a long-extinct sauropod, the largest yet discovered, which has been given the truly magnificent name Dreadnoughtus schrani, ‘that which fears nothing’. As a quadruped the size of a Boeing 737, I imagine the only thing a Dreadnoughtus might have had to fear was a lack of plant material to forage.

Or, in the case of the Dreadnoughtus individual found in Argentina, quicksand. The creature was preserved when it and other dinosaurs perished in the Patagonian hills an estimated 77 million years ago.

Dreadnoughtus scharni Source: E. Eng, National Geographic, M.C. Lamanna, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Dreadnoughtus scharni
Source: E. Eng, National Geographic, M.C. Lamanna, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The other find involves a sea animal that is, presumably, still extant in the oceans off Tasmania. No one is really sure.

Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides
Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

Dendrogramma eingmatica (another wonderful name) is a tiny mushroom shaped being with a long stalk and a mouth. After much examination, what is really new about Dendrogramma is that the two species don’t fit into any existing phylogenetic classification.

They seem to comprise their own little branch on the Tree of Life.

Dendrogramma Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

Source: Kristensen, Olesen/PLOS ONE

I was never comfortable with the fact that when we perceive a natural entity that we haven’t seen before, whether it’s a species, a geographical feature or a planet, we say we’ve ‘discovered something new’.

It implies that only what we humans have seen and identified actually counts as existing.

The Dendrogramma specimens under discussion were harvested in 1986, and preserved in such a way that DNA analysis can’t be applied. Until new specimens are found, and maybe even after, their provenance will remain a mystery.

New to us, not really new at all.


Blackberry Meander


On an evening walk last night, I took a picture of these blackberries to remind myself to go and pick some of them and make jam to mark the beginning of 1_2

And then I liked the picture, so I took a few more of flowers as they disappeared in the 2_2

The air was alive with singing crickets, the distant bells of the sheep pastured near our own place, and the rustle of cows settling in for the night. The air was cool and soft as the last rays of sun retreating over the 1

The camera didn’t pick up the nuance and definition of the half moon or the black paper cut-outs of the cypress trees against the darkening 3

But I hope you get the idea. It had gotten too late and too dark for me to go for a run here, my usual running loop, so I walked it instead.

It was a good 2