More from the Lemanea cookbook …

My previous experiment with the culinary properties of the freshwater alga Lemanea took an Italian turn (see “Spaghetti alla Carbonara con Lemanea”) and this continues with my latest recipe, which combines Lemanea with a classic risotto to produce what is, in my opinion, the most flavoursome Lemanea-based dish I’ve yet encountered.   This is your last chance to cook with Lemanea this year, as it flourishes in late winter and early spring so its season is drawing to a close.   You need to collect a couple of good handfuls of Lemanea from a clean river, rinse it with cold running water in a sieve, and then spread it out on some kitchen paper to air-dry overnight.   At the end of this period, pick it over to make sure that there is no grit still adhering to the filaments, then chop it into short lengths with a pair of kitchen scissors.  As it dries, the gentle fishy aroma of the fresh filaments intensifies, inspiring the culinary imagination …

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Air-dried Lemanea, ready for cooking …

I have already tried Lemanea with pasta so today’s experiment was with risotto: one of my favourite Italian dishes both to eat and to cook.  I cooked a standard risotto bianco then, towards the end of the cooking period, added a handful of fresh prawns and a generous handful of chopped Lemanea (for two people).  I stirred it around whilst the prawns cooked, and to make sure that the Lemanea was distributed throughout the dish.   Once the stock had been absorbed, I removed the risotto from the heat and stirred in some butter and Parmesan cheese.   I used this time to pan-fry two trout fillets to serve with the risotto.

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Risotto with Lemanea and prawns, served with pan-fried trout and a bottle of Durham Brewery’s Smoking Blonde ale.

Once again, the gently fishy flavour of the alga balances the taste of freshwater fish really well although, in retrospect, smoked fillets would have been better.  However, all my fishmonger had were some rather bland rainbow trout from a fish farm.   The prawns add extra flavour and texture to the dish and led me to wonder if the dish might also work really well with freshwater crayfish.

Rather than open a bottle of white wine with the risotto, we followed up a lesson we learned the evening before at Blackfriar’s restaurant in Newcastle, where we had a meal where every course was complemented by a carefully-selected beer.   The fish course was complemented superbly by Durham Brewery’s “Smoking Blonde”, a golden ale made with smoked wheat, which introduces to the beer the complex aromas I associate with Islay whisky.  I gain a double pleasure from recommending a beer from Durham Brewery: it is situated within walking distance of my house and they started in business at about the same time as me.   I first encountered them, in fact, on a course where we got a basic training in business methods together.   “Smoking Blonde” celebrates their 21st anniversary in business, so I guess it must celebrate Bowburn Consultancy’s “coming of age” too.

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A day out in Weardale …

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Fine weather towards the end of last week lured me away from my computer screen and out to Weardale on the flimsiest of pretexts, and gave me an opportunity to drag this blog away from musing about pandas and Taoism and back to its core business.   Forty minutes drive from home brings me to Frosterley, in the historic mining and quarrying areas of the valley, though enough time has elapsed for the hard edges of the industrial heritage to have been rubbed away by the gradual incursions of nature.   It is a beautiful spot, with the river meandering down a tree-lined channel with wildlife in profusion.

Understanding a river is partly about recognising patterns at different scales and just as one can look at a landscape such as the one above and infer something about its conditions (fast-flowing water? relatively natural channel?  low population density?) so a naturalist should be able to adjust his or her focus and read the story of the river at smaller and smaller scales.   It takes a few moments to adjust – physically and mentally – to searching at these finer scales, but the story of the river started to open up once I looked more closely.

There were a number of small dark green patches on the river bed, most noticeable towards the margins (maybe because my wellingtons limited my explorations to the shallower parts of the channel).   They were slimy to the touch and I could make a guess at their identity, but needed to get them under a microscope before I could confirm this.   That’s one of the problems with my kind of natural history: there is none of the immediacy that a birdwatcher or field botanist gets from putting a name onto organisms in the field.  Underneath the microscope, however, my alga yielded up its secrets: I could see narrow filaments composed of cells each with a single chloroplast lapped around most of the perimeter, with a number of side branches, each gradually tapering to an acute apex.  This is Stigeoclonium tenue, a common alga of streams and rivers although possibly less common now than was the case a couple of decades ago.  It is hard to be sure because it is easily overlooked and there is no systematic recording of these organisms, but I am not the only person to voice this suspicion.

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Stigeoclonium tenue from the River Wear at Frosterley.  Left: macroscopic view showing tufts of green filaments attached to a submerged stone (scale bar: approximately 1 centimetre); right: microscopic view (scale bar: 10 micrometres = 1/100th of a millimetre).

Looking at these filaments, I can read a little more about the state of the river than I could infer from my landscape-scale perspective at the top of this post.   I can suggest to you that this river is, or has been in the recent past, flush with the nutrients that Stigeoclonium and other plants need to thrive.   Why do I know this?   I shared laboratory space as a PhD student with a colleague, Martin Gibson, who was investigating the physiology of this species and its relatives.  This built on earlier work by Brian Whitton and others which showed that when nutrients were scarce, the branches of Stigeoclonium were much longer, tapering gradually into fine, elongated cells that were devoid of chloroplasts.  These had special enzymes which were able to break down organic compounds that contained the phosphorus that the alga needed.   When nutrients were plentiful, these hairs disappeared.

I strongly suspect that, were I to look at recent phosphorus measurements in this part of the Wear, they would indicate low concentrations, which might suggest that my inference is wrong.  However, the Environment Agency’s standard approach to measuring water chemistry is based on a single visit each month and we know, from finer-scale studies, that phosphorus concentrations can vary greatly over short periods of time (particularly related to changes in the weather and flow regime).  We also know that their standard analytical method does not record phosphorus that is tightly bound into molecules.   The Environment Agency’s approach is good enough to give the basic insights into rivers that they need to regulate the environment, but misses many of the nuances.   That’s why an understanding of the ecology of apparently insignificant organisms can be so useful to river managers.

One of the reasons I wanted some samples of algae from the River Wear was to see if we can simplify the process of identifying algae, in order to make these insights more available.  I’ve written already about RAPPER  (see “The Democratisation of Stream Ecology?”) but so far those of us who have tested this have all had access to high power microscopes.   It is possible to buy field microscopes at a much lower cost but these typically only have a maximum of 100x magnification.  One of my objectives for this year is to see just how can be identified with this limitation.    The image below was taken at 100x using my main microscope, and you can see that the basic form of Stigeoclonium can still be resolved and, indeed, differentiated from related genera such as Draparnaldia (see “The River Ehen in February”), so this is an encouraging first step.  If we can repeat this with the other algae used in RAPPER, then all sorts of possibilities for “citizen science” open up …

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Stigeoclonium from the River Wear at Frosterley, photographed at 100x magnification.

References

Gibson, M.T. and Whitton, B.A. (1987).   Hairs, phosphatase activity and environmental chemistry in Stigeoclonium, Chaetophora and Draparnaldia (Chaetophorales). British Phycological Journal 22, 11-22.

Gibson, M.T. and Whitton, B.A. (1987).  Influence of phosphorus on morphology and physiology of freshwater Chaetophora, Draparnaldia and Stigeoclonium (Chaetophorales, Chlorophyta). Phycologia 26: 59-69.

Whitton, B.A. & Harding J.P.C. (1978).  Influence of nutrient deficiency on hair formation in Stigeoclonium.  British Phycological Journal  13: 65-68.

The ecology of Tao (or the Tao of ecology)

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“You spoke of Tao the other day”, said Kitty, after a pause.  “Tell me what it is.”

Waddington gave her a little look, hesitated for an instant, and then with a faint smile on his comic face answered:

“It is the Way and the Waygoer.  It is the eternal road along which walk all beings, but no being made it for itself is being.  It is everything and nothing. From it all things spring, all things conform to it, and to it at last all things return.  It is a square without angles, a sound to which ears cannot hear, and an image without form.  It is a vast net and though its meshes are as wide as the sea it lets nothing through.  It is the sanctuary where all things find refuge.  It is nowhere but without looking out of the window you may see it.  Desire not to desire, it teaches and leave all things to take their course.  He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire.  He that bends shall be made straight.  Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking place of failure, but who can tell when the turning point will come?  He who strives after tenderness can become even as a little child.  Gentleness brings victory to him who attacks and safety to him who defends. Mighty is he who conquers himself.”

“Does it mean anything?”

“Sometimes, when I’ve had half a dozen whiskies and look up at the stars, I think perhaps it does,”

From: The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maughan, 1925

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The photos show Qingyang Gong Taoist temple in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.  The leaves in the foreground of the lower picture are from some of the many gingko trees planted in the grounds.

The one where the author gets sentimental about pandas … almost

One of the theme of this blog since I started in 2013 is that there is a lot more to the natural world than the obvious subjects of television natural history documentaries. Today, I put those noble ambitions to one side temporarily with a post about one of the most iconic of all animal species. The motivation was a visit to the Panda Breeding Research Base at Chengdu in Southwest China, which has over 100 pandas, many born at the centre. It also has some of the biggest crowds that I saw at any tourist attraction in China, including a high proportion of Westerners. Wandering around the attractively-landscaped grounds, the appeal of pandas was obvious, even to a hard hearted cynic such as myself.

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They are not just one of the most anthropomorphic of all mammals, they are also more “teddy bear”-like than any real bears. I remember reading a paper years ago that documented how teddy bears had, over time, evolved from being “bear-like” to having more human-type features; the panda’s physiognomy naturally has a a shorter snout, more rounded features and a high forehead than true bears. Combine this with the “pseudo-thumb” which allows it to grip food in a very human-like manner and the reasons for our strong emotional response to pandas becomes clear.

Many conservation biologists subscribe to the theory that focusing attention on a few charismatic “flagship” species is the best way to ensure conservation of its habitat. In the short term this may be a pragmatic policy, but I have my doubts about it as a long-term strategy and fear that the underlying philosophy is flawed. Watching the crowds “ooh” and “aah” at the antics of the panda, and their subsequent free-spending on panda-themed tat in the gift shops, I wonder whether the principle of ‘flagship species’ theory is risky because of the intense focus on a few selected species. The danger is that the mountain forests of Sichuan province are valued only as habitats for pandas; the bamboo that it eats gets an honourable mention in a supporting role, and all other organisms are reduced to ecological “extras”.

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These are tricky waters to navigate because whilst a level of empathy with nature is a prerequisite to responsible stewardship of the environment, this needs to be based on more than a sentimental attraction to organisms that behave in ways to which humans can relate. This sentimental appeal is encapsulated by a signboard at the Panda Breeding and Research Base which carries a quote from the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi (772 – 846): “Who says animals are lowly? They are just the same as humans. Please don’t shoot the bird because the babies are calling their mother.” But what happens when the ecosystem contains none of the organisms that promote this emotional response? How do you construct a case for the conservation of these habitats? What about the pearl mussels that have been the subject of several posts on this blog in the past?

An emphasis on “flagship species” is also hard to reconcile either with a utilitarian “ecosystem services” philosophy towards environmental management or a more spiritual recognition of the oneness of nature. It may work as a crude marketing strategy for habitat protection in a few cases, generating revenue and leveraging public and political support. However, it distorts the picture that ecologists should be presenting to the world and that is not in anyone’s long-term interest. Perhaps this intense focus on “flagship species” is a symptom of (or a response to) the deeper malaise of our disconnection from nature?

My fascination with ecology stems from the extraordinary diversity of life and complexity of the interactions between organisms and with their environment. Much of this is played out on a scale that is beyond the resolution of the human eye, and amongst organisms that have no anthropomorphic characters. Ecologists can describe and measure what is going on to some extent, but communicating the prosaic business of nature’s “back room staff” is always going to be a challenge. My response, which may sound counter-intuitive, is to accept that science can only give us partial and selective insights into the natural world and to move towards more abstract language. We know enough now to recognise the importance of a holistic view of nature, to know that we should be stewards for future generations, and to know that folly of unchecked exploitation of the natural world. The need for pandas and other “flagship” species is really a sign of a deeper spiritual malaise, reflecting how we have forgotten to “tread lightly” as we go about our business.

References

Gould, S.J. (1992). The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. W.H. Norton, New York.

Hinde, R.A. & Barden, L.A. (1992). The evolution of the teddy bear. Animal Behaviour 33: 1371-1373.

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Reflections from the banks of the Yangtze

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From my fifteenth floor room of my hotel I can just see the Yangtze River. There is just a thin sliver visible from here, between a jumble of apartment blocks that, themselves, dwarf a Buddhist temple complex far below me. The river is indistinct at this distance due to a haze hanging over the city which is partly natural but which also traps the pollution that the city of Chongqing creates. ‘Smog’ seems too strong a word; I am here with my mother and she remembers London’s ‘pea-soupers’ and today’s haze does not compare with those. Indistinct or not, that sliver is one small part of the mighty Yangtze, the longest river in Asia and third longest (after the Amazon and Nile) in the world. I am on holiday (visiting my son who is teaching here) but rivers feature often in my posts and I cannot pass the opportunity to write something about the third longest in the world.

Yesterday’s sightseeing took us to the Three Gorges Museum which simultaneously celebrates the diversity of geological, botanical, zoological and archaeological heritage found along the Yangtze River and justifies the destruction of much of this when the Three Gorges Dam was closed in 2006. With Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Starbucks and KFC all within a few minutes walk of my hotel, the display boards in this museum were a timely reminder that China in 2016 is still an autocratic communist state. Here is an example:

“The Three Gorges Project is a great water conservancy project which will benefit many generations. Curdling [sic] the dream of the nation, it demonstrates the outstanding courage and wisdom of the Chinese people. It utilises and enriches the advanced science and technology of the world and creates the civilisation of the Three Gorges Project and the cultural heritage protection in this area. It embodies and cultivates the Three Gorges migrants’ dignity of sacrificing individual interest for national benefits.”

Amongst Western liberals, the Three Gorges Project is a byword for large-scale state-endorsed environmental vandalism and I arrived in China with all the standard preconceptions. My visit to the Three Gorges Museum did little to assuage these. The language on the display boards was rather too defensive, in particular in its justification of the enforced resettlement of the many whose homes and land disappeared under water when the dam was closed. But the story, as ever, needs to be told in shades of grey, and is neither as black nor as white as detractors and supporters respectively claim.

Chongqing, “the largest city you’ve never heard of” is a good metaphor for modern China; it has a population of 10 million, making it larger than London. The central shopping streets are crowded with people and flanked with trademarks of familiar brands. But here’s the conundrum: how does a fast-developing country with 1.4 billion people keep infrastructure apace with the aspirations of the population? It is no use criticising the Three Gorges Project unless you can come up with a practical alternative that can provide for China’s needs. That’s the problem with many environmentalists: we are often better at explaining the problem than suggesting solutions.

The Luohan Temple, dwarfed by surrounding office blocks, stands as a symbol of the challenges facing modern China. Buddhism preaches fulfilment through the suppression of desire; capitalism, by contrast, urges fulfilment through satisfying desires. Social democrats, myself included, need those same desires to generate the tax revenues that finance health, education and other functions of government. Advocates of the free market believe that desire promotes aspiration, and thus fuels economic growth, increasing opportunities in the process.

Wanting less may be part of the solution, but that is a path that an individual can adopt, rather than a government prescribe. Having watched so many fellow travellers on the Beijing or Chongqing subways staring intently at their smartphones, I wonder if the access to consumer goods sweetens the pill of living under a still-repressive regime? And, therefore, might global moves to limit carbon emissions create instability within countries such as China? Whether any of us In China or the west really need our smartphones is a moot point; my sympathies lie with the old folk playing Mah Jong in the tea houses. They have already lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The least that self-righteous westerners can do is temper our indignation with sensitivity.

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The Luohan Temple in the Jiefangbei District, Chongqing, dwarfed by modern office blocks. The upper picture shows the Chongqing skyline by night from the Yangtze River.