The camera never lies?

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The picture above shows a rather unprepossessing view of a river bed, photographed earlier this month.   The stones, to give a sense of scale, are all less than ten centimetres across.    What is your immediate reaction?   My guess is that it is probably negative: that mass of green filaments cannot indicate a healthy ecosystem.   However, the next picture is a view of the same river bed photographed a month earlier and that shows a very different scene.  There are just a few tufts of filamentous algae, if you look closely but, overall, the stones are clean.   First impressions, at least, are not negative.

That phrase “first impressions” is important.   If you were to take a closer look at the composition of the plants and animals at this site, you will see little to cause concern.  There is a good diversity of algae and invertebrates, and these include several that thrive only in high quality rivers.   The larger plants, too, are those that we associate with rivers with low nutrient concentrations and there are also salmon and trout present.   There are issues with the river but these are not my primary concern today.  What is of interest to me today is the reason behind the negative reaction.

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The same river bed as the upper photograph, but photographed in August 2016, rather than September 2016.  Both photographs taken on an Olympus  TG2 camera.

There is a trend for pictures such as the one above to be included in reports.  The reason is, I think, quite straightforward: waterproof digital cameras of a reasonable quality are now sufficiently affordable that many of us carry them about as standard parts of our field kit.  They are useful for documenting many different aspects of the aquatic world but I worry that the audiences for these pictures have few opportunities to calibrate their experiences.

The contrast between the two pictures illustrates the danger of relying on a single photograph to infer the condition of a stream or lake.   Many types of aquatic survey may take place annually; a picture in a report can, therefore, never be wholly representative of the state of algae at a site, as quantities can change rapidly.   Inferring the condition of a water body from a short-lived fast-responding group of organisms is never straightforward and depends upon those interpreting the data (and, in this instance, visual evidence) being able to place this into context.  I worry when I see pictures such as those above included in reports of surveys of aquatic plants, in particular, because surveyors are used to studying organisms with longer life-cycles and more stable assemblages.   A photograph of mass algal growths offers a “snapshot” with few guarantees that this is typical for the the lake or stream under consideration.   The reality is that the beds of even healthy streams turn green for brief periods during the year; the problem for the surveyor unversed in algal lore, is how to separate “signal” from “noise”.

Some of my earlier posts have demonstrated the advantages that a close-up view of the underwater world that these cameras offer to freshwater biologists (see “Bollihope Burn in close-up”).   We are in a better place through having the ability to record the underwater world directly, rather than simply naming, counting and measuring; photography gives us a higher level cognitive experience and a more holistic overview of systems.  But these rewards are accompanied by new challenges.   In the same way that Wikipedia is an asset, only if used with safeguards to ensure that information that is presented can be verified; therefore we need to treat photographs of the underwater world with respect.   As for most of our technological advances, they complement, rather than replace, existing knowledge and wisdom.

A fairy story … about algae

Once upon a time there was an algal cell.   Her name was “x” and she lived all alone in a beautiful glass castle full of warm culture media in a bright room.   Her castle was a conical shape, surmounted by a tall tower and she spent all day drifting around wherever the currents took her.  But after some time living happily with all she needed, she started to get bored and, being a unicellular alga, she divided in order that she might have some company.   Now she had a sister who was, confusingly, also called “x” and people who came and peered into their flask referred to them both as “2x” and remarked, condescendingly, how similar they both were, which was true as they were genetically identical.   Being sisters, they soon had disagreements and stopped talking to each other and, in order to have someone to talk to, they both had to divide again.   Now there were four sisters, all called “x” and most of their visitors referred to them as “4x”, except for one non-mathematical observer who got confused with so many cells all called “x”.  He said “why?” and everyone said “y?”, so he said, “not ‘y’, ‘why’?”   And the others all said “because” which didn’t answer his question but did stop him from asking any more questions.

The algal cells all lived happily in their flask full of culture media.   Although there were now four of them, there were still plenty of nutrients for them and light still streamed in through the glass walls of her castle.  Sometimes, x, x, x and x shared their dreams with each other.  X dreamt of being carried away by Prince Charming, who would smother her with kisses (xxxxxx: very confusing) and make mad passionate love to her.   X, x and x giggled when x told them her story although, in reality, the sex life of a unicellular alga usually involved a hasty coupling just as the pond dried out, leading to lots of mucus being produced and a long post-coital sleep in the mud after which their peace was disturbed by hordes of annoying zoospores.   There was plenty of space in the glass castle and, as all this talk of sexual reproduction had made them excited, they all decided to divide again, and they named their sisters x, x, x and x.   And, when the eight sisters had floated around, sunbathing and soaking up the delicious nutrients for a few hours, they all decided that they liked dividing, so they divided again.   They had a discussion about what to call their sisters.   X said that there were too many x’s but x disagreed and said that x is a good name for an algal cell.   X and x agreed with x but the other two x’s sided with the first x.  Eventually they got bored with arguing about names and decided to name their new sisters x, x, x, x, x, x, x and x.   And, when they all divided again, they decided that changing their naming policy would be confusing, so their new sisters were named x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x and x.    If anyone counted, they would probably find that there were now thirty-two cells, all called x.   On their birthdays (which, as their doubling time was four hours, happened very frequently), they would receive a card from each sister, each signed with their name and two kisses.   Sometimes two sisters would share a card, but that was confusing as the x who was celebrating her birthday was never sure if it was from x and x, each of whom had given her two kisses, or from x, x and x, each of whom had given her one kiss.

After a few more days, x (that is to say, the very first x) was floating around on a convection current when she felt a sudden chill.   One of her sisters was floating between her and the light.  No sooner had that sister drifted off, than another sister drifted into the light.  X was cross.   She felt that, as the matriarch of the algal colony, she had a right to soak up photons without interference from her sisters.    She called over to x who was floating past, and told her not to block the light, only for x to call back that, technically, they were all matriarchs as the first x had divided into two and those two cells had also divided, so all the x’s, even the most recent generation (512 cells, all called “x”) were, in a way, matriarchs and all were genetically identical, which made individuality a problem and may be one reason why “phycology” is often confused with “psychology” by lay people.   A few seconds later, the entire flask of algal cells were shouting at one another.  X told x to get out of the light, only for x to shout at her to complain that she was using up more than her fair share of nitrogen.   Her half-sister’s granddaughter shouted that she shouldn’t complain about x taking up too much nitrogen as nitrogen was not a limiting factor and it was actually phosphorus that x needed, and there was not enough of that because one of their sisters had just taken up the last molecule.   So now x was not just in the shade, she was also hungry.  So hungry, in fact, that she did not have enough energy to divide.   All of her sisters, including x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x and x were in the same situation, and before too long none of them were dividing at all.   They spent all their time complaining about each other.  Those that had light but no nutrients argued with those that had nutrients but not enough light and those that had enough carbon or nitrogen said that according to the Redfield Ratio they were entitled to at least one atom of phosphorus for every fifteen molecules of nitrogen.

Poor x dreamt more than ever of being swept away by her gallant Prince Charming, even if that meant never seeing x, x, x or x ever again.  Every time the convection currents took her to towards the glass walls of her castle she would look out and sigh deeply, hoping that she would see him riding towards her, dressed in a white coat and bearing either a long lance or, if that was not possible, a Pasteur Pipette.   But then, being a poor planktonic cell, the convection currents would carry her away from the glass walls of her castle and she would no longer be able to see the world outside.

Finally, when life in the flask was getting so crowded that she would have to say “good morning x” 106 times every time she drifted through a millilitre of water, and she had almost given up hope of ever being rescued, she felt a gentle tug and then a great swirling, sucking sensation and she was swept into the narrow end of a Pasteur Pipette.   “Heeeeeellllllp” she screamed, as all her sisters gradually receded into the distance, just before she passed out.   She was plunged into a deep, deep sleep where she had a vivid dream of being plunged into a beautiful warm flask of fresh culture medium full of delicious nutrients and without any of her irksome sisters to bother her.   It was, surely, a dream but when she slowly peered out through her eyespot, all she could see was beautiful clean water, without any other algal cells floating around.   There was no sign of her Prince Charming but she was sure he would be along soon, to smother her with kisses (which were the only type of “x” she could contemplate without a shudder) after which she knew they would live happily, if not ever after, then at least until the next time that dX/dt = rX (1 – X/K)*.

– The End –

* Actually, the Verhulst equation of population dynamics is usually written as dN/dt = rN(1 – N/K) but “N” isn’t such a pretty name for an algal cell.

A cautionary tale …

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I was asked for a picture of someone sampling diatoms to include in a presentation this week and dug out the image above, one of my favourites, taken by my son Edward when he joined me on a sampling trip to the Lake District some years ago.   It shows me collecting diatoms from the littoral zone of Wastwater, with the Wastwater Screes in the background.   I like the composition, which captures the grandeur of the location and have used it several times.   Unfortunately, the Environment Agency did not agree with me.   They did not quibble with the aesthetics but refused to use it on a leaflet about diatoms because I was not wearing appropriate health and safety gear.   Seriously.

Let’s put this in context: I work for myself and have no employees.  It is in my own interests to keep myself healthy and safe.   If, when sampling the shallow margins on a warm summer’s day I choose to go barefoot and not wear a lifejacket or gloves, that is a decision that I can take, based on my on site assessment of risks and hazards.   The Environment Agency is a large bureaucracy that has to adhere to health and safety legislation and minimise the risk of being sued for negligence in the event that a member of staff has an accident whilst out sampling.   That creates a very different mindset and, inevitably, a rather top-down and inflexible approach to these matters.

We have had run-ins over the years with the Environment Agency over the years on these issues, usually involving the tier of management just above those who still remember the last time they wore a pair of waders.  One of the most bizarre occurred just after a consortium I was leading had started to develop a Water Framework Directive-compatible method for ecological assessment.   We needed samples from all over the country and these were to be collected by biologists working for the Environment Agency and sister agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  We budgeted for training workshops to make sure that these biologists knew how we wanted the samples to be collected; however, at our first meeting after the budget was confirmed, we were told that the biology teams did not have time to attend these training workshops.

We thought on our feet as the meeting progressed: we could, perhaps, produce a training video that could be distributed to laboratories instead of gathering them in one place.  That sounded like a good idea but we had no idea how to go about this, or what it would cost.   On the way back home I browsed WHSmith’s magazine racks at a train station and bought a copy of “What Video” magazine, which had a 30 day trial copy of Adobe Premiere on the front cover.   I then got together with Marian Yallop, a member of our team from Bristol University, and we spent a day collecting diatom samples in the River Wylye in Wiltshire whilst a colleague from her department videoed us.  I then used Premiere to splice these clips together and put them into PowerPoint presentations that took viewers step-by-step through the principles and practice of sampling diatoms.   You can see those PowerPoints (now somewhat dated) by following this link.   We spent about the same time on these presentations as we would have done organising and delivering workshops, so I thought that this was a good outcome, and that we should have generated some goodwill as a result.  I was, however, in for a bit of a surprise.

Our project manager was pleased with the outputs, as was her counterpart in SEPA.  However, a couple of weeks later, the official response filtered down to us: the presentations could not be used as we had not adhered to all of the Environment Agency’s health and safety procedures whilst collecting the samples.   Our cardinal sin was not to wear gloves, a practice that we (and SEPA) regarded as a decision to be made by the sampler based on their own appraisal of the site but which the Environment Agency regarded as non-negotiable.  Some acrimonious emails and telephone calls followed.   Eventually, just before all of that hard-earned goodwill evaporated completely, a compromise was found, with a confessional slide being introduced at the start of the presentation.  We managed to wave two fingers at the establishment by titling the slide “This slide was inserted by the Environment Agency” lest anyone thought that it was our idea.

Since then, the presentations have sat on the DARES website and people from far-flung parts of the world have come up to me to say that how helpful it was to see diatom sampling being performed, rather than just reading about it, so I think that the overall outcome was positive.   But there is a useful lesson for us all tucked away for those of us who deal with large bureaucracies such as the Environment Agency.  You always have to remember that most of the people who deal with your reports and outputs work at a sufficient distance from the project not to realise how contractors have moulded their work around shifting circumstances.  These people will cheerfully undermine any goodwill that you have built up at the slightest hint that outputs do not fit perfectly into established procedures.  It is probably not a deliberate attempt to sabotage a hard-won outcome on their part, but it happens.  You often need a thick skin in this business.  And gloves.  Even when you don’t think that they are necessary.

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Sampling diatoms from the River Ganges at Rishiketh, September 2016.

How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (3)

My two previous posts on the qualities that make a great image of an alga focussed on the ascetics of the image itself, and also identified major technical problems that confront those of us who want to take images of the microscopic world.   At this point, my own ability to write authoritatively on the subject peters out, so I have asked Chris Carter, who won the competition in 2013 and was shortlisted in 2010, 2011 and 2015, to write a guest post in which he shares his own extensive experience.

“Everything in optics is against the microscope photographer”: a guest post by Chris Carter

Chris-Carter

Everything in optics is against the photographer of the microscopic world, and the algal photographer in particular. Without cheating, there is limited scope to choose what is (or is not); in the field of view; the depth of focus is usually tight; the object size rarely matches the available field; no microscope objective can match the usable pixel count of a modern camera lens in conventional photography, and colours are, to say the least, difficult. Transmitted light photography has the additional problem of Beer’s law (remember!): make an object three times thicker and it will let through a ninth of the light, creating problems with the dynamic range.

The bottom line is that “adjustments” and some degree of image manipulation are necessary but these, in turn, place an onus on the photographer not to be dishonest with either the viewer or the organism.  The extent to which image manipulation is acceptable will depend upon whether the image is for a respected scientific journal, a competition, or for a Christmas Card. We cannot be too purist: the camera always lies and a modern digital camera works wonders in the background; what is colour anyway but an illusion derived from the eye and brain? For the holiday snapshot you are allowed to move the glass of beer out of the field of view first but you are not allowed to paste in a missing family member (or vice versa!) later. For the microscope image I suggest it is acceptable to remove objects that are spurious (e.g. floating limescale) and to use software tools to fuse images of the same object tastefully and honestly in the horizontal and vertical planes. In contrast, it is all too easy to add objects to an image to give a nice montage (e.g. of sparsely distributed planktonic forms) or to use false colours in an area that can be defined exactly by some other method. Similarly, other ‘composite’ images ( e.g. two views of the same object) have a place but may be difficult to make visually pleasing.

So, how do we go about this? The first necessity is to use a good image processing software package: there are lots of them and it isn’t easy to choose. I use Adobe Photoshop CS6. The first steps in processing a single image are to get the colours about right (there are separate sliders for each of the primary colours and filters for warming and cooling); for an image in transmitted light there will be overly dark and overly bright areas which the ‘shadow-highlight’ tool may fix easily. In more difficult cases adjustment the parameter ‘gamma’ can help: this tries to scale the dynamic range in the image to what is seen by the eye and to what comes over in a print or on a monitor: it is merely overcoming the limitations of the electronic and optical gadgets in use. Similar actions are performed by the ‘curves’ and ‘levels’ control: each allows the user to choose which colours and in which intensity to best convey information about the object in an aesthetic way whilst not wrecking its essential nature. At each pixel and in each primary colour the data will be stored as a (usually) 8 bit number giving 255 levels in total.  These levels need not be evenly spaced; ‘gamma’ for example can give more emphasis to the dark or the light areas whilst the other settings control which levels are used. Most digital cameras will be doing this in the background (even on a ‘raw’ setting) but my own camera does no pre-processing at all, which has advantages and disadvantages.

So much for colour: but there are still issues associated with depth of focus and field of view that need to be sorted out; these are both relatively easy to overcome technically but can create a considerable amount of work and have the potential to create taxonomic and artistic mayhem. I use two methods for producing images with an extended depth of focus both using separate images taken over the range of focus that is needed. The first is to use a ‘stacking’ software package such as ‘Helicon Focus’ (but there are others) and the second is to make use of ‘layers’ in Photoshop: each of these methods has its pros and cons but both need honesty and good sense as well as an eye on the “why am I doing this?” question.

Stacking with Helicon Focus tends to work better at lower magnifications: with a x100 oil objective curvature changes rapidly with focus and great care is needed; the software is easily confused and I did once introduce an extra row of punctae into a diatom! Good results at low magnification can be obtained with macroalgae such as the stoneworts, but even here taxonomic information can be lost in the process (e.g. the height difference between the primary and secondary cortex rows and the location of the spine cells). As I hinted above, there is always an ongoing and unresolved tension between the artist, the microscopist and the taxonomist!  At intermediate magnifications an image produced using Helicon Focus can look overly flat and artificial, despite being sharp. My own approach is to use a gentle touch to produce pictures that are primarily useful but very occasionally develop into an artistic masterpiece! By contrast, using “layers” in Photoshop requires human intervention to ‘paint in’ the wanted parts of different images.  For example, the desmid Micrasterias will rarely present in a sufficiently flat plane for a good image at high magnification; however, it is easy to judge what is closest to reality and to blend this in. Even here there are pitfalls: the end of the polar lobe in some species is normally out of plane or twisted….so again, what is the image for? A similar comment applies to the colonial green alga Pediastrum in which the peripheral cells have horns that are alternately up and down and the central cells often have surface granules.

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The desmid Micrasterias crux-melintensis has many named forms and is fairly easily recognised.  It will never sit flat enough for a x100 oil lens but in this case nothing is lost by tasteful flattening with Helicon Focus  and layers. Or is it? How many people have seen the somewhat surprising apical and side views? (No wonder it does not sit flat!). These extra views show the need for gamma adjustment and colour correction since light beams will be modified after passing through such an object. Is this composite image of artistic or of taxonomic value only? The face view is made of 17 sub-images processed as two semi-cells that were stitched using Photoshop layers; some correction to colours and levels was also necessary.

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There are many forms of Pediastrum boryanum but this is a particularly pretty one from Ulva growing on a wet cliff face; the red walls are real (perhaps manganese as suggested by Brian Whitton). This image borders on “cheating”: it was entered (no success) for a national wildlife contest but not for Hilda Canter-Lund competition (I don’t think she would have approved!). Should the horns have been flattened or left as obviously alternating?

After the issue of focus, there is still the problem of field-of view but it is really fairly easy to stitch together a matrix of images in the same plane, at least in simple cases. Photoshop has an option to do this and there are other similar packages; this is also another job that ‘layers’ in Photoshop cope with very well: adjacent overlapping images can be blended manually. It is more difficult of course if these adjacent images are themselves blends at different focus points……it just takes a long time to get right. The image of Tolypella glomerata that was a runner-up in the 2015 Hilda Canter-Lund competition was made of 75 sub-images (17×5 approx) and took two days to process! Each of the 17 in the xy plane was shot as a stereo pair, so there is also a matching anaglyph (3D image) made of 150 sub-images!

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“Out of the pit”: Chris Carter’s image of Tolypella glomerata, shortlisted for the 2013 Hilda Canter-Lund prize.

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This dark-field image showing the antheridia of Chara fragifera is made up of 28 sub-images: 4 horizontally and 7 for the vertical stacking; a protruding green filament has been removed (actually a rare Bulbochaete, but that is another story).

One final point, unresolved in my view and perhaps the most difficult of all is the issue of dynamic range. In transmitted light photography the intensity of difference between bright and dark can be nearly impossible to capture: well beyond the capability of the 8 bits of a normal camera and marginal even for an expensive cooled CCD instrument. Photoshop and other packages claim HDR ability (High Dynamic Range) using several images of different exposure: I have not personally had much success with this but have regularly used Photoshop layers to blend such images manually and regard this as acceptable in all cases (see the Rivularia cross-section below).

All the algae are amazing but even a retired physical scientist has to narrow things down a bit: I am trying to use photography to bring out the three dimensional aspects for identification and appreciation: diatom auxospores, desmids from unusual angles and macroalgae as 3D recreations such as anaglyphs and stereograms….but that is another story.

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The cyanobacterium Rivularia presents many photographic challenges. This is a section of a nodule in transmitted light done for taxonomic purposes: in-focus bits of the calcification have been discretely blended in and the outermost part showing hairs is at a very different exposure to the core; colours are distorted by passing through the nodule and have been corrected. Three or four overlapping sections have been accurately joined to produce the final image.

Chris Carter, Nothampton August 2016.

Into the Valley of Flowers …

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I can safely say that our hotel in Ghangharia was one of the worst in which I have ever stayed.  The rooms were draughty, dirty and damp, there was no hot water and the cheerful Nepali kitchen staff had a very limited grasp of health and safety.  This is one of the downsides of being a Guinea pig for a tour party: we stayed in two excellent hotels and three perfectly adequate ones but, occasionally, we have to suffer so that next year’s paying guests don’t have to.   The tented camp, just outside the village, looks like a much better bet for next year.

On the plus side, the low cloud disappeared overnight and we awoke to blue skies with just a few puffy cumulus clouds and gulped lungfuls of cool mountain air in order to banish the fetid atmosphere of the hotel.   The track out of Ghangharia was quiet: the Sikh pilgrims have to walk further and climb higher than those of us heading to the Valley of Flowers, so had made earlier starts.   We paid our 600 rupee entrance fees at a hut beside the path just after our route diverged from the path that the Sikhs took, and followed the track through a fir forest overhung by enormous vertical cliffs of much-folded ancient rocks.

The Valley of Flowers is a hanging valley – a glacial valley which ends in an abrupt drop as it joins with the valleys below.  This meant another stiff climb along a path that zig-zagged up a hillside and across the site of recent landslides.  We were now walking at about 3500 metres, and I was reminded of the limitations of my acclimatisation programme with every step.  But we had reached the tree line and the valley had broadened out to give us our first views of the valley that Smythe had first seen in 1931.   From where we stood at the western end, the valley extended for about five km due west before reaching the foot of the Tipra glacier. Behind these, peaks (several climbed for the first time by Smythe and his associates) rose to 6600 metres although, during our visit, most were hidden by clouds.  On either side of the valley there were lateral moraines deposited by the glacier in colder times whilst the Pushpawti river, carrying the glacier’s meltwater, has gouged out a V-shaped notch along the mid-line of the valley.

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Looking west up the Valley of Flowers towards Tipra glacier with stands of balsam in the foreground.  The photograph at the top of the post shows our first view of the Valley on arrival from Ghanghria.

There was a profusion of flowers but, to our mutual surprise, the most abundant by far, especially close to the mouth of the valley, was Himalayan balsam, scourge of British river banks (see “The politics of pests”).  After a while, however, we started seeing more diversity, especially in areas where the balsam was less prevalent and as we pushed further into the valley.  Everyone has to leave the valley by nightfall, which limits the distance that visitors can penetrate to a couple of kilometres, so there were many areas that Smythe described but which we could not visit.  Nonetheless, Heather, the real botanist in the family, photographed about 100 different species (her own accounts will follow) at a time of year when important groups such as Primula and the orchids are long past their best.

The prevalence of balsam was intriguing.  This is its native habitat, and we don’t have enough knowledge of the plant communities in this part of the world to know how typical these extensive stands of balsam are at these altitudes.  Smythe reported its presence but also commented that it was ruining pastures in the area.  However, he only made a couple of visits so his opinion, too, may not be definitive.  We did learn from a park ranger that the cover of balsam had increased in recent years.  When the valley was declared as a World Heritage Site grazing was banned and though this was at a very low level (a single family), we did wonder whether this had a role in maintaining habitat.   On the other hand, the balsam here is much more varied than the monocultures of Impatiens glandulifera that we are used to seeing in the UK, where it was introduced and perhaps we are approaching it with minds pre-conditioned by negative attitudes at home?   I. glandulifera is found in the valley, but I. sulcata, the Giant Himalayan balsam, is more common here.   There is no doubt that the splashes of pink-purple flowers across the floor of the valley were a dramatic fulfilment of many peoples’ expectations as they first entered the valley.

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Valley of Flowers, looking west at about 1.5 km from the foot of Tilpri glacier.   The plants in the foreground are (probably) Campanula latifolia (bellflower) and Selinum wallichianum (milk parsley), one of several umbellifers that are found in the valley.

By now, the sun was sinking and we needed to start retracing our steps back down to Ghanghria.   Our personal odyssey was over; we had seen the Valley of Flowers. For Heather, at least, it is probably “au revoir” rather than “goodbye” as there is a strong chance that she will bring a tour party back here next year or the year after.   For me, who knows?

And, yes, I did collect some diatoms from a stream whilst I was in the Valley of Flowers.  I’ll write more about those at some point.  Somehow, too, I must have communicated my interest in the diversity of the microbial world to the kitchen staff of our hotel, as they kindly sent me back down the track to civilisation with a payload of grumbly enteric bacteria.  But you don’t want me to write too much about that …

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The Valley of Flowers, showing abundant stands of Persicaria polystachya, a very common plant along river banks (i.e. in the habitat where we would expect to find Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, in the UK).

Hill tales from the ‘plane …

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From Rishiketh, we followed the Hindu and Sikh pilgrims as they made their way up the Ganges to the many sacred sites amidst the headwaters.   The road followed a narrow, twisting route high above the river, and Mohan, our driver, was often slowing to a crawl as we passed places where the debris from recent landslides littered the road.  Each turn opened up new views of tree-clad hills, with hamlets clinging to steep slopes and narrow terraces following the contours for rice cultivation.  We passed orange-clad sadhus (Hindu holy men) who were walking the whole distance to Badrinath (some 300 km from Rishiketh) and were, in turn, overtaken by less patient pilgrims in cars sporting orange flags and honking horns.  Macaque and, occasionally, langur monkeys, stared curiously at this procession through their valley whilst cows wandered to and fro across the highway in search of grazing.

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Rice fields clinging to a hillside near Joshinath in the upper Alaknanda Valley, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016.  The upper picture shows sunset over the Alaknanda just below Srinagar.

This is a pilgrimage, of sorts, for Heather and myself too.  Thirty years ago, I gave her a copy of Frank Smythe’s Valley of Flowers as an engagement present and our destination on this long, slow journey into the high Himalayas is the valley that Smythe first described back in 1937, and which is now a World Heritage Site, famed amongst botanists for its rich alpine flora (over 500 species of flowering plants).  Our slow progress up the valley was partly dictated by the terrain, but also by my need to acclimatise to the high altitude. Smythe first stumbled into the valley by chance whilst on a climbing expedition and, when the clouds shift, we get glimpses of high peaks in the far distance.

At Deoprayag, 68 km from Rishiketh, the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers join to form the Ganges.  There is a  mass of brightly-coloured houses, each almost on top of the one below and, at the bottom, ghats, emphasising the importance of the confluence to Hindus.  Our route is along the Alaknanda, so we drop down to the bridge across the Bhagirathi, passed chai stalls and wayside eateries, and followed the road towards Badrinath, another important Hindu shrine, and Govind Ghat, the start point for the Sikh pilgrims’ trek as well as for the Valley of Flowers.  A little further on, we stopped at a busy little café with a row of pots bubbling away at the front for our lunch and ate vegetable thali with hot roti straight from the stove.

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Deoprayag, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016, where the light brown Bhagirathi (on the left of the picture) and the darker brown Alaknanda (on the right) join to form the River Ganges.

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Lunch stop at Biyasi, between Rishiketh and Srinagar, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016.

The complicated interplay between the sacred and secular continued as we moved up the Aleknanda valley.  The enormous power of the Ganges and her tributaries, fed by the monsoon rains and glacial meltwater, is a resource that a country with few other energy sources, a population of over a billion and huge ambitions cannot be wasted.  The first of several hydropower projects that we saw was at Srinagar, about 80 km above the confluence.   When the dam was closed in 2013, a temple to the goddess Hari Devi had to be relocated.  Within weeks, the devastating floods occurred in the valley, with over 15,000 fatalities.  Now, the government is paying for the temple to be rebuilt in exactly the same location, on a platform resembling a small oil rig accessed via a bell-lined gantry.

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The Hari Devi temple just upstream of Srinagar, Uttrakhand Province, August 2016.

We needed two overnight stops to cover the distance from Rishiketh to Govind Ghat, where we left the road set off on foot with cheerful groups of Sikh pilgrims along a footpath that wound along a forested valley of a tributary of the Alaknanda deeper into  the hills.   The vegetation changed as we climbed: pines, hazel and chestnut were amongst the trees that we recognised from home during the early stages of our trek.  These had replaced a mass of less-familiar trees – “jungle”, in the truest sense – on the lower slopes.  As the valley narrowed and the path grew steeper, the broadleaf trees became less common and first deodar cedars, later spruce and fir, appeared amongst the pines.

The early morning drizzle petered out as we climbed; rain ponchos were stowed and we walked on in tee-shirts and shorts, stepping aside periodically as columns of pack ponies pushed past us laden with supplies for the villages above us.  We paused at a chai stall, catching our breath as we looked back down the valley and at the churning river far below.  Then, we turned our eyes back to the path and continued upwards, pausing again to talk with a group of Sikh women from Leicester who were making the pilgrimage. By this stage I welcomed every opportunity to stop to catch my breath; I suspect that an extra day of acclimatisation would probably have been beneficial.

Lunch was fresh potato paratha, eaten with hot lime pickle and more chai, in a shack on a hillside, exchanging pleasantries with the stately patriarch of the Leicester clan before pushing on for the last kilometre or so, through a stand of fir trees and into the scruffy village of Ghangharia.  This is where the pilgrims – whether of Govind Singh or Smythe – spend their last night before the culmination of their journey.

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“Pharmoethnobotany” near Bhyundar, Uttrakhand Province, during our trek to the Valley of Flowers, August 2016.

Reflections from the River Ganges

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From Shimla we made our way across the Himalayan foothills to Deera Dun and, from there, to the Hindu holy town of Rishiketh, where our hotel room which overlooked the River Ganges, swollen and turbid following the monsoon rains. Rishiketh is, along with Varanasi, Allalahabad and Hardiwar, a place where Hindus believe that the veil between the earthly and celestial realms is at its thinnest, making prayers and puja performed here particularly auspicious. This may seem, at first sight, to be a long way from the science that I usually write about in this blog but a lot of my posts relate to how humans use rivers, and this includes spirituality (see also “Dipping a toe in the River Jordan

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Hindus performing puja in the River Ganges at Rishiketh. The upper picture shows sunrise over the Ganges, August 2016.

Travelling along the upper stretches of the Ganges emphasises that such uses should not be dismissed lightly: the river and its tributaries run through steep-sided unglaciated valleys, with little flat land for agriculture or development. The flux of Hindu pilgrims upstream from Rishiketh to shrines at Kedarnath and Badrinath provides a major source of income for the local economy. I’m writing this post in a village called Ghangharia which has one of the highest Sikh Gurudwara in the world (3048 m) and we shared the 11 km journey from the closest road with a constant stream of friendly Sikh pilgrims. This village is largely dependent upon these pilgrims, who use this as a base to trek to a high altitude lake associated with Guru Govind Singh.

But it is not enough simply to consider the benefits of spiritually purely in economic terms. Hindus venerate the river as a god. I have a private theory that one of the origins of religion is trying to explain “low frequency, high impact” events and the Ganges has plenty of these. When the monsoons fail, the crop lands that the Ganges irrigates cannot feed the people. When the monsoons are especially intense, there is widespread flooding and loss of life. In 2013 there were severe floods in the Bhyunder Valley, in which Ghangharia is situated, with a huge loss of life locally. One small village that we saw was half buried by river sediments – including huge boulders – moved by the flood waters. The inhabitants will have seen many monsoons pass over without any harm falling on their village. Yet, in 2013, catastrophe struck. The natural inclination at times like these is to wonder “why here? why now? why me?”

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Part of the village of Pulna, in Uttarakhand Province, India, submerged by river sediments following catastrophic floods in 2013.

It is easy for a westerner, watching the outward manifestation of faith, to be condescending about the veneration of a river as a god. Should not science and reason, we wonder, not now replace these old superstitions? Up to a point, yes. However, the floods in the UK last winter are evidence of the limitations of our empirical approach, particularly when dealing with low probabilities but there is a deeper reason too. A consequence of the western scientific approach has been an inclination to dominate the natural world, to use our knowledge to overrule natural forces. Man dictates how a river should behave using cement and concrete: we have lost the awe and reverence for nature that arises from a sense of its enormous potential power.

A binary split in attitudes to nature is too simplistic. My experience is that ecologists generally do have a reverence for the natural world, and some understanding of the complex interactions that interfere with straightforward cause-effect relationships. But we often work within organisations and structures created by engineers and bureaucrats, who have more simplistic notions about how the natural world should be governed. And, whatever I write about Hindus revering the Ganges as a god, in principle, the river is horribly polluted and, in the upper portions, impounded for hydroelectricity. There is a disconnect between theory and practice, particularly ironic as the central Hindu notion of karma is all about linking actions to consequences in the future. Or, as one Hindu philosopher put it, “… the cause holds the effect … in its womb”. There is, it would seem, scope for a healthy symbiosis between modern ecological thinking and a belief system that reveres, rather than tries to dominate, nature.