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.

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.