Category Archives: Wanderlust

Do we need to re-think our approach to the environment?

I recently put together a presentation of my research work for the SAEON seminar series – monthly presentations across the SAEON nodes – in which I argued the case for investing in whole-plant physiology research (You can find the video at this link, and I hope it is worth a watch!). My reasoning is as follows: 1. The natural world provides almost infinite services for us (and other life forms, of course). Some of these “services” are fairly easily quantified, while others are very difficult to quantify. For example, it might be possible to quantify the health benefits of clean drinking water or the volumes of water running off of a mountain catchment area, but how do we put a monetary value on improved human psychology resulting from a sense of place, wonder, awe or calmness that many get from healthy, natural places? 2. The world is changing in several ways at remarkable rates, and this will impact life on the planet. Humans and our tools are an incredibly powerful force in driving some of this change, including our propensity to dig up and burn fossil fuels, which is leading to increased global temperatures and other changes to the climate. I am beginning to think of our actions as being part of a kind of unplanned global experiment… 3. Species respond differently to such global changes. In the talk I provide several examples of where we have observed different responses among co-existing species to changes in one variable – rainfall – in Southern African ecosystems. 4. There is an urgent need to better understand these species-specific impacts if we are to understand and predict the outcomes of our global experiment. And if you are involved in policy or industry, a fifth point might be to act upon this knowledge as it comes in.

Does environmentalism need a re-think? And if so, why?

Now, this all seems fairly obvious and straightforward to me (and to those involved in conservation work, I gather), but I often wonder what is preventing us from making more progress in the realm of environmentalism. I can put forward two possible answers to this problem: The first is that the first two points in the line of reasoning may not be evident to most people. I suspect that we (i.e. humanity) have not fully grasped the point that we are entirely dependent on and immersed in the natural world. I would suggest reading E.O. Wilson’s Biophilia or Consilience, both excellent books illustrating our reliance on the environment, to gain deeper insight into the nature of our dependency.

The second answer is that we are locked into ways of living that preclude us from acting on our knowledge. If this is true, I wonder if being “locked in” is simply a failure of imagination on our behalf to generate alternative means of income, or whether there is something more to this. We get clean drinking water from healthy rivers, but this does not provide us with apples and gold or platinum…all of which might be essential. Another way of phrasing this is to say that there might simply be too many of us to exist in a sustainable manner. I can remember engaging with a website that calculated how many earth’s would be required to support my lifestyle if everyone adopted the same level of consumption, and the result was something close to 2 and a half earth’s. I wondered what it would take to cut this down to 1 planet earth; what sacrifices would I need to make to my lifestyle and were these possible? I think the answer is yes, but, again, it might take some imagination.

Following in the footsteps of early explorers of southern Africa

In light of the upcoming Heritage Day in South Africa (September 24th), I decided to celebrate an element of our heritage that I find interesting, namely the excursions and encounters of some of the early British explorers. In the early 1800s the British were interested in expanding their influence around the world, including in Southern Africa, and a part of this endeavor was sending naturalists and explorers to collect information on the land, it’s people as well as on the local animals and plants. William John Burchell was one of these naturalists who has gripped my attention because of his fascinating character and because his exploration, discoveries, plant and animal collections and field notes have increased the knowledge of subsequent generations.

Burchell travelled to South Africa in 1810, arriving in the Cape of Good Hope in November 1810, and spent the next three years exploring the Cape, the broader Colony and the land beyond the borders of the area colonised by people of European descent at the time. His travels were undertaken for the purpose of “acquiring knowledge” of Southern Africa, including the local flora and fauna, as well as suitable areas to settle. In years following his time in Southern Africa, Burchell published a very detailed account of his travels in two volumes of his famous journal, Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa (see the title page above). I have read both volumes and found them highly engaging; full of fascinating details about life in Southern Africa at the time. For example, Burchell’s notes describe some of the plant species that he came across, including several species that were unknown to European naturalists at the time:

In addition to the extensive notes on natural history contained within the journal, Burchell also published a map and made hundreds of sketches. Some of these sketches were published in the journal in the form of woodcut vignettes, adorning the headings or end of the chapters. Now, before embarking on the long expedition throughout Southern Africa, Burchell explored the Cape region in a few local trips. Two of the vignettes in his Travels depict scenes from a short journey that Burchell undertook to Tulbagh, a small farming town located about 120 km from Cape Town (see map). I was intrigued to figure out whether I could reproduce some of the scenes, so I undertook a similar journey (not in an ox-wagon) to see what I could find.

Two of the scenes from Tulbagh depict the Drostdy and the main street in the Village. About the former Burchell wrote: “At a distance of half an hour’s walk northwards from the village is the Drostdy. This is a large and handsome stuccoed building, ornamented in front with a portico of three arches, to which the ascent is by a flight of steps. It contains several large and lofty rooms, together with a spacious council-room in which public meetings and the sittings of the judges at the annual circuit are held.”

I managed to place myself in almost the precise location that Burchell must have stood, although the trees have grown a bit since he drew it! In addition to the ravages of time, the Drostdy has survived a fire (in 1938) and an earthquake (in 1969). Part of the building has been restored, although I am not certain which bits are the original…so the restorer has done an impressive job.

The village scene was slightly more difficult to pinpoint, although still not terribly difficult because Burchell’s notes made it clear where he stood: “The village, as viewed from the parsonage-house, and looking southward.” A couple of things have changed in the intervening 210 years: The “row of young oaks along the street” have become much older and taller, obscuring the “mountains in the distance” (which Burchell referred to as the Roodezands Kloof, but I think they are the Witzenberg mountains?), and the mode of transport has also advanced. But nevertheless it is remarkable how little time seems to have changed the village:

I quite enjoyed stepping back in time, and found it quite engaging to place myself in the footsteps of Burchell. Doing so seems an appropriate way for me to celebrate my South African heritage, although the British explorers are, of course, only a small part of the wonderful, rich cultural heritage of the people of this great country.

Urban space-seeker seeks natural awe.

This passage was clearly written prior to 2020; at a time before corona inspired lockdown measures had been implemented.

Today I had a brief sortie into the countryside for work purposes and jislaak! it was invigorating to get out into the wilderness again! Myself and a colleague (Abri de Buys) traveled to the Jonkershoek Valley just outside Stellenbosch for some field work. Jonkershoek is, of course, famous for being the site of one of the longest ecological experiments in the world:

In 1938 the South African government started a network of hydrological experiments at Jonkershoek for the purpose of researching the impacts of afforestation on water supplies. The experimental design was based on the classic paired-catchment principle…that the streamflow from two untreated catchments is compared, so as to establish their natural relationship. One is then planted with trees. The change in the relationship between the two catchments after afforestation could then be ascribed to the treatment or influences of afforestation.

SAEON is mandated with maintaining the micrometeorological stations at the various sites, and we were there mostly to do some calibrations and to switch out some equipment. But the site is also beautiful and I managed to snap some shots of the mountain flora and scenery. Take a look at these photos that I took on our day out to satiate (or frustrate?) your sense of wanderlust:

The Berg River catchment
Scattered Proteas
Protea neriifolia
Abri at one of the micrometeorological stations at 1200 m a.s.l.

Abri informed me that this rain gauge located at 1200 m above sea level (below) holds the record for capturing the highest annual rainfall in South Africa. I forgot what the total was…something close to 2800 mm I think. If anyone knows better – or has a link to a site that records this – please let me know in the comments.