Friday, 31 July 2015

A haiku

I dont often write poetry, but I felt like this picture deserved one. Cherry blossoms, from the edge of the Tulip garden in Tonami, Japan.

Soft in the warm light
 Twirling, dancing, daintily
Spring is upon us

Tree Sniffing Dogs

Dogs are fascinating creatures. Dogs can detect 5 times more scents than we humans can, and this has been used to great effect - simply check out Dog Squad on our local tv screens! Dogs sniffing drugs, bombs, cash, fruit... All sorts of things that our Biosecurity Control Team do not wish to have in the country.

But now, dogs, well one dog in particular, have been trained to sniff out something that is rife within our Northland forests...  Similar to how pigs are used to sniff out where tasty truffle fungi are hiding, this dog (named Paddy) can sniff out Phytophthora taxon Agathis, a water mould, that is killing Kauri trees (Agathis australis).

Our taonga -“Kauri are one of the largest rainforest trees on earth and they are to New Zealand what the pyramids are to Egypt and Stonehenge and cathedrals are to England,” Stephen King, Northland

Phytophthora taxon Agathis (PTA)

Now I love most fungi, and I know that they can be helpful to organisms in a forest system - help with decomposing old wood, fallen leaves, and fresh edible mushrooms are a treat not to be missed! But PTA is not to be messed with. The spores of this microbe infect the root systems of our ancient Kauri, damaging the tissues that send nutrients around the tree. The roots start to rot. Then the tree dies.
A happy, healthy Kauri tree, Waipoua Forest, Northland, New Zealand
Which is why is it of utmost importance when visiting the Waipoua Forest to always clean your shoes, and stay on the track! Leaving a designated path, or boardwalk, for a few steps to get a picture with these awesome trees can spread PTA and kill a tree that might be 1000's of years old...

Heres hoping that Paddy, the kauri sniffing dog can help 'stop the spread' until we find a cure. You can find an excellent overview of infected areas, with further information, if you click below:

 Kauri Dieback Disease

Tane Mahuta, God of the Forest. Slowly dying, but approximately 2000 years old. 

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Hey Rocket, this one is about when I visited Kanazawa... Japan, Part Two

Here is a second instalment of my adventure in Japan!

I am not as talented a photographer as Michelle (make sure you check her blog, she might have posted some new photos..!)

(Or not, and I am just teasing)

However, let me tell you about when I visited Kanazawa.

Kanazawa is known for its gold leaf - and it is on everything! Icecream, in my tea, painted onto buildings, jewellery, iPhone cases.... But it was a beautiful place beyond all the gilding, straight out of a japanese legend.

It started with the Botanic Gardens, (partly covered in Japan, Part One), then I crossed the road to visit the Kanazawa Castle. It was inhabited by a Shogun, and a whole bunch of samurai during the Edo period. The steps were all uneven in case they were attacked - to trip up the enemy samurai who were unfamiliar with the castle. The castle tower was built in a diamond shape. 300 years ago, when all they used were interlocking bits of wood, they created a perfect, 3-level tower with corners at 100 and 80 degrees! (And it was recreated more recently as the original had burnt down).
100 degree corner! The tower was a perfect diamond! Mind = blown.

Lets see  you run up/down these stairs first time, without tripping, while defending samurai threw rocks at you...
Mr Noburo Orito telling us about how this castle was prosperous for 350 years during the Edo Period. He is gesturing to the wife of Maeda Toshiie, who volunteered to live in Tokyo as a hostage to help keep things peaceful between the ruling power, and the great city that was Kanazawa!

Botanic medical garden - Kanazawa castle was briefly used as a university. Here, Mr Noburo told us about the use of bamboo to preserve rice. The rice can be wrapped in bamboo leaf, which in combination with vinegar used in cooking the rice, helps keep it delicious for longer. When an earlier visitor asked Mr Noburo if he ate the bamboo as well as the rice, his response, "Panda eat bamboo. I am not panda".
My friend and I were given a personal tour, in english, by Mr. Noboru Orito. He was incredibly knowledgeable about Kanazawa, and had a soft spot for New Zealand and Kiwis.
Kanazawa Castle, seen from near the storage building where weapons were kept.

After visiting the castle, I went on to see the Museum of Gold Leaf and the geisha district. Kanazawa was incredible, the streets narrow, with new temples, shrines and interesting food in windows to see around every corner. I felt like a giant, white stranger a lot of the time (which I guess I was), in a city that was a mix of traditional and modern buildings, that smelt of river water and traffic, sounded like bicycle bells ringing and people moving, with an ice cream that tasted delicious and creamy, despite being dusted with gold flakes!

Next up: Kyoto. Where I didnt get lost, but I communicated with deer.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Dear Rocket, A story about Japan... Part One: Plants

Rocket, you know I travelled to Japan to attend Arctic Science Summit Week, 21 - 30th April, 2015.

I ventured out into the countryside, a kiwi keen to learn more about various Shogun and Emperors, while sampling the local food that left me feeling stuffed - and nervous about what a whole firefly squid might do in my belly!

(Lets be real, I know it will be digested, but eating it whole was certainly an experience....)

Koi carp were common in the ponds and water features - it was striking to see them contemplated so quietly, while here in NZ, they are a massive pest!

Koi carp in Toyama Castle park. Came up to say hello and nibble my fingers!

Then all of the other carp arrived, things got a bit messy... I removed my fingers from the water, and left smelling of fishy pond water
The conference was extremely interesting, but on my day off, I found something which delighted this botanist's senses... The Tonami Tulip Fair! The Dutch probably wouldnt be impressed, but I found it so colourful, it smelt like hot summery days and looked like a vibrant rainbow!

I spent a few moments watching the cherry blossoms sway in the warm breeze!
The Sakura, or Cherry Blossoms, were blooming at their best in Toyama before I arrived, I managed to catch these in a shady spot of the tulip fair! The Sakura 'front' moves from south to north in the Spring - then in Autumn, the Autumn leaf 'front' moves back down the country from north to south.

In the Botanic Gardens in Kanazawa, I saw trees, with all their branches propped up! Turns out, when it snows in Winter, the boughs of the trees can snap under the weight of all the flakes of frozen water. Using poles to hold them up = problem solved! Long-lived trees with fascinating scaffolding.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Superb Sunsets

I was reminded of the sun the other day. Which may sound strange - but it struck me that, in the words of Pumbaa from the Lion King; its a ball of gas burning billions of miles away.

So I looked up some sun facts (makes a change from ice, right!), and here goes. Actually, it was relevant to thesis amendments - the sun shines wavelengths of light down upon the earth, the petals on the flowers reflect the wavelengths into the centre of the flower, and all the sexy stuff happens quickly and efficiently, just as it should. I believe there is a bit more detail here and there, but that is the gist of it all. Thesis in a nutshell!!

Back to the sun. The sun is almost perfectly spherical according to some sources - my own observations at sunset are in keeping with this. Light from this ball of burning gas (mostly hydrogen if is correct) reaches the earth in approximately 8 minutes.

Spherical ball of burning gas at the center of our solar system
The sun produces 'solar winds' which contains charged particles - and don't quote me on this, but I believe that these particles have some role to play in the Aurora... Because whenever there is a solar storm, the aurora is far more active than when there isnt a storm.

The Midnight Sun has been a common feature in my polar endeavours. One night I hiked up to the Plateau above Longyearbyen in Svalbard, and watched the sun sink down, and down, until it brushed across the tops of the jagged mountains across the fjord... before rising again to take its place in the sky! This was the final circuit around the sky without setting for that season - 22 August.

Last of the Midnight Sun in Longyearbyen
The sun is same at the other end of the world (same sun so it makes sense). A memorable sunset on Campbell Island occurred around 2230 hrs, with a skua gliding around my head checking out what these crazy botanists were doing out at that time of night. All sorts of moths were flitting about, and after having read numerous accounts of shipwreck survivors being 'seen' wandering the peat bogs... It was eerie, the wind had dropped and the skua was hovering about and it would have been the perfect moment for a historical ghost to spring out of the Dracophyllym and shout "Yah!!".

Needless to say, there was no ghost. Just the sun quietly sinking below the horizon.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Over 26 different types of Ice...

And I fondly remember carving penguins out of packed snow/ice in the Antarctic.

"Sleepy Penguin"(by yours truly) with ice shot glass (that was made by a friend)

My first ice carving experiment was actually in Christchurch before we left for the Antarctic. It was in a workshop, with a very talented man, with a lot of big tubs full of ice.

He shared some basic techniques, and I got pretty damn excited about it all - especially the idea of a vodka luge (more on that later). I went to Mitre10 and got myself a serrated knife, packed it carefully into my bag and waited to head south.

The most interesting thing I came across when considering carving things out of ice was that in this amazing, hyperbole-filled place, I had no ideas of anything to create. Nothing. No inspiration at all. I had seen loads of 'polar inspired' artwork, but down on the ice, nothing was jumping to my mind! Perhaps it was that it was a scientific expedition, but I think it was the absence of everything - look to the right, great nothingness of white snow-covered ice until the horizon where it turned into blank blue sky. To the left, Mt Erebus just puffing quietly away. No sense of scale, or distance.

But, the first chunks of hard-packed snow that came out of our hand-dug snow pit looked promising. The first chunk I got stuck into with my knife seemed to suggest 'Penguin'. The slope of the head and the back arose quite quickly, then it was straight-forward to shape out a head, beak and wings. Shaping the block sounded like polystyrene being cut, my gloves got soaked from firmly stroking the penguin to get just the right shape. My bum went a bit numb from sitting. I put a piece that I cut off in my mouth, it was crunchy and cold!

And after a short hour or so of concentrated effort, I had a sleepy looking penguin for my troubles. He went on to adorn our kitchen area, and was joined by two others ( I tried to do different species, but it was not easily idenitfied).
Supposedly Emperor Penguin next in line after the sleepy one (Photo Chris Dolder)

Macaroni Penguin, Sleepy and Emperor (Photo Chris Dolder)
Watching them melt was fascinating, as they were carved at different times, I had used blocks of hard snow/ice from different snow pit layers:
Remnant Macaroni Penguin with three distinct ice layers

After three penguins, I was tired of making them. I wanted to carve still and searching for inspiration, ended up with the shape of my pounamu that I was wearing at the time. I carved it in 3D and shaped it out of a snow layer with ice behind it.

Koru, symbol of new growth and renewal (Photo Shannon Fowler)

Koru on ice
I find ice and the shapes it creates fascinating - just like with snowflakes.

Over 26 different types of Ice...

But snowflakes are my favourite!

I love snow. Watching it fall, softly hushing on the ground. Getting big, fat fluffs of it in my face, stuck in my hat and melting wetly down neck! But my absolute favourite thing is seeing snowflakes gently whisking through the air, spiraling around and down to join the messy clusters on the ground.

Snowflake photos by Kenneth G. Libbrecht

I am not sure quite what it is that I find so wonderful about them. The symmetry perhaps, or the notion that every snowflake is unique. Maybe its that they just fall, quietly out of the sky, sparkling and perfectly beautiful.

I first saw snowflakes during a reindeer hunting expedition. It was cold, it was light, it was the middle of the night - and there were loads of these fantastic shapes sprinkled all over my jacket and backpack. And here was I thinking this kind of thing only happened in the movies!!
Snowflakes on my jacket (excellent jacket from EarthSeaSky)
Now, according to this handy snowflake guide (Snowflake Guide), the snowflakes on my jacket belong to the type known as 'Stellar Dendrites' and 'Fern-like Stellar Dendrites'. There are even places  where, just like you can go to watch birds, you can visit to watch and observe snowflakes. I spent a lot of time watching them during winter in Svalbard, just outside the UNIS building in Longyearbyen. The lights were up high, and lit up the snowflakes as they fell and there was no wind, just snowflakes falling all around.

Snowflakes are made up of ice, which forms when water vapour freezes. A frozen vapour-droplet then develops the shape of the snowflake but this seems to be a pretty complicated process, involving a lot of physics. At the most simplest, different shapes form depending on air temperature, and the amount of vapour and the shape of the original frozen droplet.

If any science were 'magical' it would be the physics and principles that guide the formation of snowflakes. Disney's 'Frozen' movie certainly calls it magic and sorcery, but perhaps Elsa is simply a physicist in another form.