Sucked in (to the swamps)

About a month ago, I got back from my first ever trip to the continent of South America.  And the reason for my visit?  Peat, of course.  Here is a blog post I wrote for my new(ish) research group, the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, on my recent adventure to the “chupaderas”, or sucking swamps, of the western Amazon. 

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A colleague, being sucked in.  (She is entering a type of palm swamp dominated by Mauritia flexuosa, locally known as an aguajál and important for the fruit that can be harvested there.)

At the end of June, I got back from two months of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.  The swamps, the Amazon, Peru, and indeed South America, were all new to me, having spent most of my research career to date searching for remnants of intact peatlands in Southeast Asia.

In the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin (PMFB), a large area of the lowland Amazon within the Department of Loreto, Peru, you’re pushed to find any land that isn’t swampy to walk on.  Mapping projects to date have estimated the peatlands of the PMFB to cover 100,000km2.  One of the reasons I was there, along with six colleagues (from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester) and a bunch of exceptional assistants, was to help improve the accuracy of this estimate.  We each had slightly different data gathering agendas, but overall were trying to find out more about the evolution, ecology, condition and value of these peatlands, both from a local and global perspective.

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Washing clothes in Veinte de Enero, on the banks of the Yanayacu river, on one of the many fine evenings after coming back from a sweaty day in the swamps.

My focus, along with that of Luis Andueza (fellow St Andrean) and Charlotte Wheeler (Edinburgh), was to investigate how people value the wetland ecosystems of the PMFB.  Luis formed a key part of the social science team, made up of a great bunch of co-investigators and assistants from the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP).  They spent many hours asking many questions of the members of three communities, Veinte de Enero, Nueva Union and Nueva Pandora, living on the banks of the Yanayacu, Chambira and Tigrillo rivers, respectively.  They, incidentally, drank a variety of liquids during the interviews, to facilitate their social integration with the communities!

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The ecological crew I was with, busy measuring what we measure in a plot.  Spot the agile one up the tree.  Never have I seen such heights scaled so quickly, and with such ease!  (I might need to adapt the Risk Assessment for the next trip, however.)

Concurrently, Charlotte and myself, led by our brilliant botanist, Nállarett, and two courageous Field Assistants, Julio S and Julio I, were out exploring the many ecosystems that surrounded these communities.  Our work was, in essence, a big treasure hunt.  Our mission (that I questioned why I’d chosen to accept at various points of inundation!) was to find the gold – the code-word for peat.  We ventured into the environment surrounding the three communities in order to “ground-truth” information of two sorts: (i) ecosystem types/resource extraction locations marked on participatory maps generated by the communities in workshops run by the social science team, and (ii) maps generated through remote sensing (using Landsat imagery) that depict changes in land cover, with the different ‘covers’ yet to be confidently identified or understood from an ecological perspective.  We spent approximately 20 days cutting our way through swampy forests of all shapes and sizes.  When we came across a new ecosystem type, and felt that we could work at that location for two hours without sinking, we gathered data on various above- and below-ground characteristics.  One of the most challenging plots was half a meter under water, at a location aptly named “31 Devils”.  Thankfully, I’ve had previous experience of snorkelling in bogs.

Now that we’re all back on solid ground, we’re starting to explore all of the ecological and interview data collected from the swamps, to try to understand how people use, and importantly, how they value the wetlands ecosystems of the PMFB, as well as understanding the physical characteristics of these ecosystems from a western scientific perspective.  Our initial findings suggest that there are a whole range of forested wetlands used by these communities, composed of a huge diversity of flora on both peat and non-peatlands, and on a confusing mix of peaty-lands in between.  And, not unsurprisingly, people tend to avoid the deeper, looser, more “sucking”, mosquito-ridden swamps, when and where they can!  Sensible folk.  But we still have much to learn about the nuances of how each community values these carbon-rich, biodiverse and beautiful ecosystems.

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Some of the great team, fresh-faced and smiling at the start of our fieldwork campaign!  (One member of the team may have been carried over the swamps in some parts.  Many other members of the team wished someone would carry them over the swamps in all parts.

 

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Learnings from an unexpected haven of tropical ecology

A few weeks back, I attended the Joint BESTEG/gtö Symposium in one of the most beautiful cities of the British Isles (now just down the road from me) with a rich history of scientific endeavour.  The British Ecological Society tends to put on a good show from my experience, and this met expectations.  The Symposium was entitled “Unifying Tropical Ecology: Strengthening Collaborative Science”; the pertinence of which was emphasised in the Welcome Address by Pierre-Michel Forget, the Society of Tropical Ecology’s (gtö) President, as we head towards a potential division within European scientific institutions that will likely impact on all nations of Europe and beyond, unless we work hard to keep connections alive.

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A picture from Calton Hill, pre-BESt jog. (Excuse the wonky angle – one of my fortes!)

There were many excellent talks, and I listened to some fascinating presentations about things I wasn’t even aware were a thing beforehand.  I thought I’d give a quick low-down on some of my top tales from the meeting (mostly so I’ve got them recorded somewhere other than in my fraying notebook).

1. Open ecosystems need the Attenborough-effect, and fast

As Professor William Bond passionately described, these are ecosystems that naturally contain areas of non-woody vegetation.  I’m sure I’ve not given his definition justice, but basically, the natural disturbance regime, coupled with climate and soil type, create an environment where trees are not the dominant vegetation type.  I was fascinated to hear William describe fire as a biological agent in these landscapes; as the “life-blood” of most of the World’s open ecosystems.  Yet, because of our preponderance for forest, and our perception that forest would dominate most ecosystems (within certain biophysical boundaries) if us humans hadn’t tampered with them, we are biased against seeing different landscape configurations, i.e. these precious open ecosystems.  We’re not “seeing” them and understanding the ‘nature’ of these open systems because we consider them to be a result of our destructive behaviour, rather than natural.  An example of this is the very recently ‘discovered’ and designated biodiversity hotspot in the USA: the North America Coastal Plain.  As explained in this article: “several myths and misconceptions prevented ecologists and conservationists from recognizing the biological importance of the NACP until now”, its uniqueness and stability, absent of anthropogenic impact.  One consequence of us not appreciating the uniqueness and importance of these ecosystems, is that we are all too ready to turn them into forests, encouraged by well-meaning, but somewhat naïve international initiatives such as The Bonn Challenge: “a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030”.  I think it’s a challenge in itself for any international initiative to avoid being naïve when it attempts to roll-out a one-size-fits-all across the globe; often in reality, one-size-fits-none (a common problem encountered with free t-shirts).  Through the impetus of the Bonn Challenge, with careful planning, millions of hectares of recently deforested land could be replanted, i.e. reforestation.  (Though see Wheeler et al.’s recent Comment pondering some of the specific challenges of the Challenge, including where all of this magical land for reforestation might be!)  Afforestation – [converting] (land) into forest, especially for commercial exploitation – is a different matter altogether and requires a lot more consideration and perhaps guidance through policy, to ensure open ecosystems are not sacrificed in the process (and indeed, peatlands).  Hmm….

2. Termites are really quite awesome

Yes, I’m late to the game on this one.  Professor Kate Parr, through a rather annoying (at the time) and unpredicted environmental disaster, found out some fascinating new facts about these amazing creatures.  A drought revealed to her and her crew that termites are more important than we previously realised in facilitating recovery in drought-disturbed forests, significantly increasing the resilience of the vegetation.  This recent paper from her group gives much more background, and justice to the important role of termites than my few sentences.  Kate ended her talk by cautioning that termites don’t seem to be able to survive in forests impacted by recurrent fire, or fire and drought, or the other forms of ‘unnatural’ disturbance common to the Anthropocene.

3. Unlike many humans, trees are taking action to respond to climate change

Emma Bush gave an excellent presentation explaining the data she has collecting that shows a reduction in leaf senescence as atmospheric CO2 levels rise, i.e. trees are holding onto their leaves for longer.  Again, there’s way more of this story to tell (and I think Emma has a few outstanding research questions she’s wanting to answer), so keep an eye out for publications from this budding expert.

4. And a few more of the cool things I learnt:

  • Trees don’t get on well without neighbours, as demonstrated by Isabel Jones, showing results of reduced regeneration of trees on islands created by the construction of mega-dams; more info here. I wondered what impact these dams were also having on the fauna of the now-fragmented landscape and consequently on seed dispersal for the trees, e.g. are they creating “silent forests”?  But I sadly couldn’t find her at coffee to ask!  Neat work.
  • Talking of seed dispersal, Professor Kim McConkey, gave a really interesting plenary on the role of megafauna in seed and fruit evolution in the Tropics, and indeed the mysteries that still remain on that front. An impressive piece of detective work, involving many people over many years, as told in part here.
  • Various presentations made me realise that the impact of drought on the vegetation of the forested Tropics is complex (yes, late to the game there too!). Different environmental and interacting factors make for a wide array of (sometimes unpredictable) responses of vegetation to the disturbance of drought.  And ‘drought’ itself is a different beast in different ecosystems: one man’s drought is another man’s shower….or something like that.
  • You can learn all sorts of things when you start a new project, or when an old project gets a bit fruity, with many outcomes being far from any hypotheses you might have scribbled down (sometimes post-hoc!)….if you keep your eyes and mind open!
  • Having an early morning jog, around a beautiful city, with a bunch of other hungover ecologists, is a very great idea.

Thanks to the BES, and everyone else who joined in the fun.

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Having fun with Project Awesome Edinburgh, at sunrise, on Calton Hill. They meet there every Wednesday. Well worth joining in.

 

Un-CAP the Brexit can….and unleash the worms?

Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists.  It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue.  And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended.  It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here.  Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.

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Some wisdom from Dame Georgina Mace, whom herself confessed being pretty baffled by what the future might hold. 

One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy.  Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island.  “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”.  But that was never the central aim of the CAP.  Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).

But we only could leave the EU.  And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it.  And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like.  We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers.  And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe.  The worms would be proud.

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What does the future hold for our green and pleasant, and depauperate land?

Las turberas de Peru

I learnt a new word this week: turberas.  In about three weeks’ time, I’ll be off to Peru’s turberas.  In case you hadn’t guessed, turberas = peat.  My new gig is on a project entitled Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands.  I’ll be heading out to Iquitos, a city (inaccessible by road – for better or for worse) within the Peruvian Amazon, which will be the base from where a crew of us researchers will be heading into the swamp forests this side of the Andes.

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Talking shop with the team, at the edge of a bog.

There are still a fair few questions to answer on the exact details of the research and the associated fieldwork that we will be doing, but we made huge head-way this week at our first project meeting.  We were fortunate to have four of our Peru-based colleagues join us (all from the Instituto de Investigaciones Amazonía Peruana) for three and a half days of intense discussions.  And my, it was frazzling.  (I have a new-found respect for the MPs of the UK Parliament after two+ years of what have effectively been intense interdisciplinary discussions.)  This project is the first truly interdisciplinary one I’ve been a part of, i.e. much more than just lip-service is being given to the notion of working together, across disciplines, to answer some multifaceted questions.  I’m re-learning the importance of patience, open-mindedness, clarity, humility and perspective: all immensely valuable skills for any project, and any well-lived life.

I will write more about the project as the days fly by, but at this point, one of the persisting aspects of it (whilst others seem to come and go with the wind!) is that we’re interested in finding out how and why people are interacting with their environment, notably the boggy bits of it.  For me, it’s such an exciting project, and certainly as interesting as it is challenging.  And it’s such a privilege to work with a team of passionate Peruvians, and an engaged UK-based crew, spanning the social and natural sciences.

Watch this space for more reflections on working interdisciplinarily (a word? – probably in the social sciences), and for news on how I fare in a real-life intact peat swamp.  A rare and wonderful space these days.

Small town blues…

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Taken on a sunrise jog in January.

…and oranges and yellows and reds.  There is never a dull sky in St. Andrews.

Three months ago today, I moved north, to try my luck on the (other) Scottish Riviera.  And I’m proper north this time, for a southerner.  I’ve been gifted a post-doctoral research fellowship at Cambridge-on-Sea: a role I’d been working towards for five years and wasn’t sure would ever come my way.  I’m eternally grateful to my new boss for trying her luck with me.  Having made it back into the academy, my experience suggests that several years out of an academic setting can be surmountable at worst, and at best, a hugely valuable opportunity to gain a broader range of skills and an exposure to quite different working environments, which, despite my recurrent concerns, are of course of use in a university setting.  I write this to reassure the many early career researchers out there who are facing a “break” from academia, be it through choice, or more often, a lack of it.  I’ve realised, through conversations with several of my new, inspiring colleagues (over several pints), that the common characteristic amongst the ‘successful’ researchers I know is passion for their subject, and for learning and experiencing in general; not working under a torrent of “should”s and feelings of obligation to the ‘industry’.  I feel very lucky to be back alongside my beloved peat, and in such a beautiful setting….for however long the ££ lasts.

One particularly wonderful aspect of my new home is how close my bed is to a beach.  Within 10 minutes* I can be at one of three stretches of sand.  Dreamy, yes.  So I’ve also realised my latent passion for sea-dipping.  (I now understand that what I do is not really swimming – refer to below.)  Less accessible an activity in London-town, and a little death-defying to attempt in Liverpool.  But the seas of St Andrews are so inviting, even in February (the least scorchio month, apparently).  I am now in ‘training’ for the second-ever Scottish Winter Swimming Championships.  I attended the inaugural event a month ago, accompanied by my new, self-appointed coach, Anna.  We only attended as observers, partly because I wasn’t confident Anna would come if she thought competing was on the cards.  The greater part was that I was too late to register us!  Moments after arriving, I was quite thankful for that fact, comparing myself to the real “winter swimmers” popping in and out of the icy (sub 5oC) water with smiles on their faces and no sign of a shiver.  These swimmers actually swam, 50m or more.  Some were flying through the water in butterfly, of all strokes.  I was in awe, as I shivered on the bank with my Patagonia and my cup of tea.  Next year, she says.

Turns out there’s way more than just Tunnocks to be enjoyed in Scotland.  It’s an honour to be here.

 

*not including two minutes of “snooze” + 3.4 mins of tying the laces on my trainers

Coming to the end of Condatis

And at the times when I’ve not been doing burpies on the Docks in the dark (see this post), my last month has been filled with more flights than a whole forest could offset.  Mostly to get to places in the Tropics, in order to have meetings in air conditioned offices, about how to connect up landscapes for biodiversity under the influence of future climate change and habitat loss.  (I’m not sure yet how this common practice, even amongst conservation scientists, can be changed.  Thoughts welcomed!)

I’ve written a little bit about my recent trips to Ghana and Indonesia on the Condatis website.  Overall, it’s been a fascinating ten months in Liverpool for me, working on this Condatis project.  I’ve met some very great people, and learnt a huge amount from them and from my new experiences in work and play.  At the start of January, I’m migrating north, to the chilly shores of bonny Scotland (to work on PEAT!!), but hope to keep up my ties with Condatis, its great team, and the other cultures and kids I’ve gathered in Scouseland.

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One of the many beautiful forests I’ve visited this year, in the Heart of Borneo.

 

Just awesome!

N.B.  Peat, bogs, swamps, or anything work-related is not discussed in this blogpost, for which I do not apologise.

Last Friday, Alice Green/Marathon/Wonderwoman and I organised an ‘official’ Launch for Project Awesome Liverpool.  It was early, and cold, and dark, and damp, and so wonderful.  Herewith are some of my reflections on the whole shenanigans.

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Thanks to @mjcapturesuk for taking this photo of the record breaking numbers at the Launch.

I didn’t know Alice that well when I moved to Liverpool back in late February, having met her after a Project Awesome session in London and imparted some mediocre advice on how to train for her first marathon.  She now runs a marathon almost every weekend; on the other weekends she runs ultra-marathons.  Quite an incredible lady.  We’ve had some gorgeous runs over the last 10 months, and every time we’ve got together I’ve returned home feeling refreshed and inspired.  Thanks, Alice.

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Alice and me, midway through an evening run and deep conversation on how to do life, alongside the Gormleys at Another Place.

We had both been so enriched by our Project Awesome experience in London, and were both missing the je-ne-sais-quoi of it in our Liverpool lives.  I was also missing my epic early mornings and the feeling of adventure and perspective that they bring.  So we thought we’d have a go at creating our own Project Awesome (PA to the quickly accustomed) in Liverpool.  Danny, being Danny, was quite happy for Project Awesome to be adopted wherever, whenever, as long as it remained a fun, positive and free community.

On Wednesday 27th June, before the clock struck a sensible hour, Alice and I jogged down to the Docks and prepared our first session.  At 6:30am, two ladies turned up: Leanne and Haley.  I’d scouted them out at another running club (the ever-friendly community that is Dockside Runners), thinking that they might be of the PA-type.  I am very proud to say that my PA-dar appears to be finely tuned to picking out PA-compliant folk.  Leanne has only missed two sessions since, and Haley is an avid groupie.  The four of us had a fun first session, and finished with a photo aside the other Fabulous Four.

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Back, at the dawn of PA Liverpool time….

Since then, we’ve gained several other superstars.  I secured one whilst jogging around a park, in the dark, in Malaysia.  Quite proud of that.  And she’s a keeper.  Another unsuspecting awesomite, I poached from Dockside.  And the rest have joined in after impassioned conversations about that early-morning thing we do down on the Docks.

And Friday mornings have become the most fun and friend-filled part of my week.  I will be forever grateful that Alice and I gave it a go.  The people I’ve met through it are truly awesome.

So, the Launch.  We had 15 whole people, including four real men (presumably whole).  And four unicorns (evidence for the most delicious one below).  And the most special of guests: the man who started it all off.  I try to, but I’m not sure I will ever be able to thank him enough for all that he’s taught me since I met him some four years ago and for how much he’s enriched my life.  He’s a very special mix of human.  We need more of that mix in our midst.  And the other special guest: a woman who’s boundless creativity vastly exceeds her acknowledgement of it.  It was such an honour to have Danny and Lally along for the party.

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Oh, sweet, sweet Unicorn cake.

And if I were to stand on the podium….”Thank you, Alice, for finding time in your incredibly busy schedule to give PA Liverpool a go, and for your endless energy.  And for teaching me to be braver and bolder against ‘the authority’!  Thank you, Leanne, Haley, Steph and Ming, for being our so-solid crew.  And to Ioanna and Ian, for being there in spirit even when you’re pulled elsewhere.  Thank you, Lals, for that first fateful naked shower, and then for holding my hand on the slide of all slides!  And Danny, thank you for making me feel good about being me.

May Project Awesomes everywhere keep creating spaces for people to have their fill of community, authenticity and utter sillyness.  And long live Project Awesome Liverpool!