Off grid, in tune …

A weekend camping at the Latitude Festival barely ranks as hardship on any meaningful scale, but it does provide a brief opportunity to reflect on what, for 361 days of the year, I take wholly for granted.  Water is one of the leitmotifs of this blog, creating the habitats that the creatures I write about inhabit.   Yet I barely pause for thought when turning on taps or watching used water drain away whilst I am at home.   Here, I am off-grid: if I want water I have to walk to a standpipe and fill a container; if I want to wash in hot water, I have to light my sturdy old Trangia to heat-up a saucepan; when I use the toilets, I have to walk 100 metres and hope that the previous occupant left the cubicle in a usable state.

Our sojourn under the Suffolk sun, in other words, is brief jolt into the extent of our disconnection from nature’s cycles.   One immediate consequence of having to plan ahead and put in some effort (tiny, compared to that required by a large part of the developing world) is that the quantity of water that we actually use drops precipitously.   Scale that up from the individual to a population, and I wonder how much of the UK’s water infrastructure would be unnecessary if everyone had to think as hard about water usage as Latitude’s campers?

We are a little closer to nature, a little less inclined to think of ourselves as separate from the wider whole, a little humbler …

To realise:
That we live in nature
But can never possess it;
We can guide and serve
But never control
This is the highest wisdom
Tao 51

Highlights of Latitude 2017?  Fleet Foxes’ first UK show since 2011 was worth the price of the ticket alone.  78-year old Mavis Staples on Sunday afternoon was magical.  Ventriloquist Nina Conti left me crying with laughter.  The desert blues of Tinariwen was memorable and, amongst the newcomers, I’ll definitely be watching out for Julia Jacklin in the future.

Tinariwen on the Obelisk Stage at Latitude 2017.

Escape to Southwold


We took advantage of the quiet mornings at Latitude to drive off the site and explore the countryside around Southwold.  I had memories of a family holiday here in 1968 and little seems to have changed: it is traditional seaside town, seemingly frozen in time, with a pier, beach huts (as in the image above), a lighthouse and a row of cannons facing out into the North Sea.

As we followed footpaths along the dykes beside the creeks, I noticed a red mat of vegetation covering the surface in one of the stagnant areas close to the A1095.   Closer inspection revealed this to be the floating fern Azolla filiculoides, an introduced plant that is quite common in the south of England but which is an unusual sight to an adopted northerner such as myself (see also “No longer a dispassionate observer of nature…”).   Inevitably, I was soon down on hands and knees to pull out a small sample for closer inspection.


Azolla filiculoides in Buss Creek near Southwold, July 2016.  

When seen in close up, each individual plant is about a centimetre across, but is composed of tiny fronds, each no more than a couple of millimetres in size.   Long hair-like roots hang underneath the plant.   The red colour is due to pigments called anthocyanins, which belong to a class of compounds called flavonoids and which offer the plant some protection against very high light intensities (an alternative strategy to that seen in Cladophora in the previous post).   Interestingly, anthocyanin production also takes place in response to low temperatures, possibly because the generally low metabolism of the plant under such conditions leads to the same build-up of excess energy when there is abundant light, because the cell machinery is grinding along at too slow a pace to keep up with photosynthesis.


Left: collecting Azolla filiculoides from Buss Creek near Southwold, July 2016; right: fronds of Azolla filliculoides in the palm of my hand.

One of the intriguing features of Azolla is that it, along with the pea family and a few other groups of organism an ability to fix nitrogen.  This allows it to grow in habitats where nitrogen, a naturally scarce plant nutrient, is in short supply.  Like the pea family, Azolla does not, itself, capture and transform nitrogen into the compounds it needs to grow, but carries a complement of passengers who do this work for the plant.   The symbiotic organism in the case of Azolla is the cyanobacterium (blue-green alga) Anabaena and I was keen to have a closer look at my Azolla to see if I could tease these out.  However, as I mentioned in my previous post, festival conditions are far from ideal for preserving fragile plant specimens, and my material was not in a very healthy state by the time I got it under my microscope.

The blue-green filaments of Anabaena were, nonetheless, conspicuous, once I had squashed a few fronds gently under a coverslip.  Anabaena is a close relative of Nostoc (see “Nosing around for blue-green algae …”) and also forms long chains of bead-like cells that resemble rosaries.   Look at the photograph below and note how there is a larger cell spaced at intervals along each filament.   These are the “heterocysts”, the specialised cells that contain the enzymes responsible for nitrogen fixation.   The ease with which Azolla grows in damp habitats, particularly in warm climates, and the ability of “Team Anabaena-Azolla” to catch large quantities of nitrogen means that Azolla is grown as a “Green Manure” in some parts of the world, as it bypasses the need to buy expensive artificial fertiliser.



Anabaena filaments from a squashed frond of Azolla filiculoides from Buss Creek near Southwold, July 2016.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

Sample safely collected, we followed the dyke across the marshes (all slightly below sea level here) until Buss Creek joined the River Blyth and we then turned towards the sea.   As we reached Southwold Harbour, we found a small café offering fresh crab sandwiches, which sounded too good to resist, even though it was barely 11:00.   And, from there, it was just a short walk back to Southwold.   A few kilometres away, the Latitude Festival was getting under way again, and our brief sojourn in Southwold had to be curtailed in favour of other attractions, culminating in a rather impressive headline set by The National.  For one weekend in the year, at least, Suffolk is not quite the boring county that most of us think.


Janes, R. (1998).  Growth and survival of Azolla filiculoides in Britain. 1. Vegetative reproduction.  New Phytologist 98: 367-375.


The National’s headline set from Latitude 2016


Good vibrations under the Suffolk sun …


After writing 371 blog posts, mostly about algae, you will forgive me if I tell you that the first thing I noticed about this picture was the algal flocs on the pond behind the sheep – the pink, fluorescent sheep – quietly nibbling the grass in the Suffolk countryside …   This is the Latitude Festival 2016 and I had to pass these flocs (and that flock) every time I walked from my tent to the arena or back.  By Sunday morning, the temptation to lean over the bridge and fish out a handful using a handy reed stem was too great.

Unfortunately, the specimen had to live in a small plastic bag stuffed into my shirt pocket whilst I stood around in a hot field at a music festival for several hours (Prince Charles talks to his plants; I take mine to listen to Laura Mvula and The Lumineers …).   By the time I got it under a microscope, I could confirm that the rough wiry filaments were a sparsely-branched variant of Cladophora glomerata, mixed in amongst some other algae including (probably) Spirogyra and Mougeotia but, having just written a post on how to take great pictures of algae, I do not feel that I should share these particular images with you all.


A view of the Cladophora glomerata flocs in the lake at Henham Park, location for the Latitude Festival (left) and a close-up of a handful of Cladophora filaments (and some Lemna fronds).

The glorious weather had one unfortunate consequence for me, as my feet and legs turned red after I had sat in the morning sun for too long before applying sunscreen.   That, in turn, led me to wonder how these particular algae survive floating on the surface of a pond in the full glare of the sun all day.   I have written in the past about how some algae produce extra pigments to protect them against high light (see “An encounter with a green alga that is red” and “Fake tans in the Yorkshire Dales”); however this Cladophora was also exposed to high light but has no on-board sunscreen. What is happening?

Think of sunlight as a stream, the cell as a mill using the stream’s energy, and the waterwheel as the photosynthetic apparatus.   Too much sunlight sets the wheel spinning so fast that there is far too much energy for the mill to use.  Something has to be done with all that excess energy, otherwise the mill’s machinery will be damaged.   Cladophora, and other green algae (which are the ancestors of all land plants) have compounds called xanthophylls which act like sponges inside the cell, soaking up the excess energy and then dissipating it as heat (the process is called “quenching”).  D1, one of the proteins associated with the photosynthetic machinery, can be damaged if strong light is not sufficiently quenched but cells also have a clever mechanism whereby the psbA gene that replaces this damaged D1 is switched on by light.   This ensures a steady supply of replacement D1 to keep the photosynthetic machinery running as smoothly as possible.

The algae, in other words, can sit in the cool water of Henham Pond secure in the knowledge that evolution has provided them with the tools they need to keep their photosynthetic machinery in top-notch condition throughout a hot July weekend.  The only question left is what did they think of the music?   The algae stuffed into my shirt pocket were not amused, but that might be because that particular microenvironment is far from ideal for algal growth.  I have found one paper that subjected rose plants to different types of music.  This particular study showed Indian classical music and Vedic chanting to have positive effects on growth whilst rock music had negative effects, possibly due to its vibrations.   It is, I have to say, not the most rigorous study I have ever seen (I can’t even find an impact factor for this particular journal) but it gives food for thought.  Fortunately, the rock music used in the study (death metal) did not feature on the Latitude bill.  35,000 people would argue that this rather narrow study needs to be broadened out to encompass the huge diversity of modern music.   At Latitude, we encountered only good vibrations …


Latitude 2016.   The Lumineers (left) and Laura Mvula (right) entertaining the crowds on Sunday afternoon.


Chivukula, V. & Ramaswamy, S. (2014). Effects of different kinds of music on Rosa chinensis plants.  International Journal of Environmental Science and Development 5: 431-434.

Fujita, Y., Ohki, K. & Murakami, A. (2001).  Acclimation of photosynthesis light energy conversion to the light environments.   Pp. 135-171.  In: Algal Adaptation to Environmental Stresses (edited by L.C. Rai & J.P. Gaur).  Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Häder, D.-P. (2001).  Adaptation of UV Stress in algae.  Pp. 173-202.  In: Algal Adaptation to Environmental Stresses (edited by L.C. Rai & J.P. Gaur).  Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Vershinin, A.O. & Kamnev, A.N. (1996).  Xanthophyll cycle in marine macroalgae.  Botanica Marina 39: 421-426.

Thinking laterally at Latitude 2014

One of my personal challenges when I am teaching is to help students see new discoveries and advances from the perspectives of people living at the time.   I spend part of my course explaining the development of public health understanding in the mid nineteenth century as a means of setting the scene for describing our modern approach to water pollution.   I do this by using, as my starting point, the closest analogue most of them have to life in a Dickensian city: the music festival, with basic sanitation and no running water (see “I wish I was at Glastonbury”)

I used the opportunity of a day ticket to the Latitude festival last weekend to update my visual aids for my lecture which means, I guess, that my visit to the festival counts as “work” and, therefore, that the entire day is now tax-deductible?   Or am I starting to think like an MP?


Latitude’s loos, 2014.   Updated visual aids for my Aquatic Pollution course at Newcastle University.

To be fair to Latitude, their loos were amongst the finest I’ve ever encountered at a music festival, so perhaps this was not the full Victorian experience that I want my students to imagine.   But we don’t need to tell the taxman that, do we?

My trip to Latitude was partly to let my mother, a 75-year old Professional Grandmother experience these festivals that her children and grandchildren had been telling her about.   Fortunately, the gods smiled on us, giving us a warm, sunny day to experience music, poetry and dance, as well as to sit in the sunshine eating al fresco from one of the many stalls.   One of my memories will be the sound of an Indian dance troupe’s instruments fading away to be replaced by the chugging organ riff of Booker T’s Green Onions rolling across the lake from the Obelisk stage.   A few minutes later, Booker T struck up Soul Limbo, the Test Match Special theme tune.  A hundred miles away, England were battling to survive the second test against India at Lords but in Suffolk we all had smiles on our faces.   That, in turn, reminds me of Glastonbury in 2010 (see “An England fan in Vilnius”)


Latitude 2014: First Aid Kit on the Obelisk stage; my mother enjoying her first festival at 75.

One musical highlight for me was First Aid Kit on the Obelisk stage, whose folk-rock harmonies were a perfect soundtrack to a summer’s evening. But let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way: Swedish: tick; two pretty girls: tick; one blonde, one brunette: tick, but that’s where the resemblance to Abba ends, whatever some of those standing near me were saying.   I can’t go for that. No can do.