Kew in the Summer

I think by now my love for Kew Gardens is pretty well documented. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I went again recently!

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It was beautifully hot, and absolutely magical. They have a patch of eucalyptus trees which we walked through, and I’ve never smelt anything so wonderful in my life – they don’t smell the way you’d expect, its spicy, dry and wonderful. I didn’t get a photo of them because they just looked like dry leaves but next time you go, look out for them. But I thought this flower was rather lovely too.

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I explored lots of different places this time, and this bridge over a lake was one of my favourite parts. It was so serene, with ducks and dragonflies everywhere. It’s easy to forget as you walk around this idyllic place, that Kew is still in trouble, that below the surface they’re having to cut jobs. Parliament isn’t in session at the moment, and with the recent changes to the cabinet it’s difficult to tell what will happen. But the Early Day Motion MPs were asked to sign did really well, so that means Parliament supports preserving this wonderful place!

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We went up the brilliant Treetop Walkway, an 18 metre high, 200 metre long platform that you walk around, and gives you absolutely stunning views, as well as the rare chance to see trees from canopy level. I’ve recently learned that I’m funny with heights (why this didn’t occur to me before I don’t know, as I’ve had MASSIVE freak outs on both the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, and when climbing an emergent tree in the rainforest). Anyway, this was taken near the end, when I actually managed to slow down from dragging my friend round at the speed of light. It was really cool though, you should definitely try it!

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And of course, no visit to Kew would be complete without a visit to the Palm House. Check out this awesome plant! I don’t know what it is but it looks like a lily?

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Did you know that Kew is a finalist in the Google Impact Challenge Award? They’re developing a device that will allow them to map disease carrying mosquitoes – a device that would be worn as a wristband or downloaded as a phone app! So cool. It’s this kind of innovation that I love about Kew, yes they do lots of quietly sensible research, but at the same time they’re so creative.

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Here’s a wonderful video about Kew’s archives and the development of our understanding of the plant world. I can’t work out how to embed it, but you must watch it because it’s beautiful, and fascinating.

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If you’re in London this summer, make a point of visiting Kew. They have so many incredible things going on at the moment, and the whole place looks great. Both times I’ve been I’ve discovered something new and fascinating, this time I think my favourite was the Marianne North Gallery. North was an artist in the 19th century, who travelled the world painting the most incredibly vivid nature scenes. Most were tropical scenes that will transport you to a warmer place when you look at them, or if you’ve already been, bring back memories of the sights and sounds you experienced. It’s amazing to look at these small colourful paintings in their dark air conditioned gallery and feel as though you’re back in the jungle (Speaking of feeling like you’re back in the jungle…look at those leaves!)

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Kew Gardens – A centre for scientific research

Have you read this great article about Jane Goodall’s take on the Kew Cuts? Make sure you go to KewCuts.org for all the latest updates on the situation, as well as links to press and info. This past week has been quite the learning curve – I’ve read so much about the different research projects that Kew is running and how important they are. I’ve picked out some of my favourites below to share with you, because I want to illustrate why it’s so important make the effort to pressure the government about this.

 Medicinal Plant Names Services (MPNS)

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Herbal medicines are increasingly in demand, as is the public interest in natural body care, which means that there is an growing trade in medicinal plants. Across the world all these plants have different names, some subtly different from one another, some completely so. Kew’s MPNS database will provide a free resource for medicinal plant identification, to avoid confusion and mistakes.

This is very much a ‘behind the scenes’ service, without much intrigue for consumers. But it is so important. Could you imagine buying something you thought was one plant to use in a medicine, and it turned out you’d bought, and used, a completely different one? For example, click here and type in ‘chamomile’ then click ‘go’ and then click ‘Matricaria chamomilla L.’ – you’ll see the gigantic list of different names you can buy chamomile under on the world market. This resource will allow the people who make your natural remedies, health supplements, body lotions, and herbal medicines, to know exactly what they’re selling to you. Thanks, Kew!

Coffee in Ethiopia

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Well, coffee is my favourite thing in the world so it makes sense I’d want to share this with you. This short film is about research Kew did into the effect of climate change on coffee production – you probably saw that in the news because it made quite an impression, and rightly so.

Something that really struck me in this film is where they mention the counterargument ‘well, its just a beverage’. I can’t believe anyone has this viewpoint! Would people really rather see a plant go extinct as a result of human activity, than actually do something about the activity? That’s like loosing all your friends by being horrible to them – wouldn’t you just rather be nice to them instead! This study was so important, and really puts the effects of climate change into perspective. Would we even know about this if it weren’t for Kew scientists? There’s no reason to assume so.

The Fungarium

This is so cool. I know next to nothing about fungi, which is hilarious, because the novel I’m writing actually has a lot of mycology in it. This film is a wonderful behind the scenes peek at a part of Kew you’d never see otherwise. Kew has the largest collection of dried fungi in the world – and a rare team of mycologists to go along with it. Working on the understanding and conservation of fungi is something you might have never thought about, because lets face it, we don’t generally spend much time thinking about mushrooms. But it’s unquestionably important that we have these people researching them and learning about them, without outside pressure or monetary interests.

I could go on. And on and on, seriously, they have such an incredible list of different amazing projects. Here’s a link to a list of environmental research projects including ones on biodiversity, food crops, water and agriculture. Their page on Plants and Fungi also has access to a whole load of databases on plants and what they do – which for a plant geek like me is just absolute heaven.

Now, some news – with the cabinet reshuffle today, we have a new Environment Minister, Liz Truss. Remember the petition you signed? Well, it was addressed to the old one, Owen Paterson. Paterson was a right wing green-hater (literally I don’t even think he’d be offended by that description?) and although I don’t know anything about this new person, I don’t see how she could be any worse than him.

I don’t know exactly what will happen with the petition, but my suggestion for anyone reading this would be to tweet at her, and make parliamentary noise by writing to your MP asking them to sign or support the Early Day Motion. If you follow @KewCuts on Twitter they’ll be sure to keep you updated on the petition. While I’m certainly no political expert (or novice even) it seems to me that it would make sense for Truss to listen, because she’ll be able to make lots of people happy without spending much money at all. Let’s face it, this government have pretty much alienated any voter with a shred of green integrity.

Save Kew Gardens – funding cuts and how to stop them

Yesterday I went to the Houses of Parliament, to protest the Kew Gardens funding cuts. I wasn’t sure what I was in for as I walked through the ornately decorated halls and corridors, but it was an absolutely fascinating, motivating experience. Most of the attendees were employees of Kew, and I think I was the only person there with no real connection to place. Given that the petition to stop the cuts has over 90,000 signatures, this was a surprise. But this anti-cuts campaign is falling victim to the same thing that many others have – not enough noise is being made about it. Kew has worldwide influence, and it’s up to people who know how important a place it is, to take the initiative and make the government listen.

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The thing is – it shouldn’t be that hard. Recently, the government boasted about spending over £7 billion on scientific research. With the cuts, Kew only has a £5 million deficit. While that’s disastrous for Kew, in comparison to the kind of money the government normally works with, it’s nothing. This isn’t like trying to convince the government to re-privatise the rail service, or stop the destruction of the probation service. In reality, there aren’t many things the government can do with that £5 million, but saving a British institution of worldwide environmental importance is most certainly one of them.

It’s worth noting that much of that £7 billion the government spent on science has been spent on car manufacturing and overseas oil research. A lot of things could be said about that, but let’s leave it at this: they could probably stand to spend a little bit of money on GREEN science now. Science that will not only benefit the environment, but also the people who live and work in their country.

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Already, 100 jobs have been cut at Kew, and having experienced first-hand a government mandated ‘voluntary exit’ scheme, I know how utterly horrible this is. Everyone is worried about their job, and the ones who are left have a sudden, unbelievable workload to cope with. The work the other people were doing doesn’t just go away. I know a government worker who, in the two weeks following the privatisation of her sector, worked a conservative estimate of 30 hours of overtime in two weeks. And there were people at the Kew meeting who were doing the same.

It’s easy to forget about the human cost of these things – but it’s important not to. You might not think about how job cuts will affect the people who work at Kew, or you might not find it particularly motivating. But you should. After all, humans are what bring you all the wonderful things that Kew does, and without them, there is no garden. Those beautiful flowers and stunning buildings only exist because there are people maintaining them, and the world-renowned research only happens because there are people conducting it.

Sometimes I have to wonder if politicians completely forget this – I mean, they’re kind of prepared for a life of stress, pressure and an absence of job security. That doesn’t mean everyone else is, or that everyone else should be. Stress is not a measure of success, especially in science, the arts and many public services. Being overworked is not an aspiration, it is a problem. And the government, whether they realise it or not, are creating a population of exhausted, stressed, underpaid workers, who never signed up for any of it.

I’ve learned a lot about the amazing work that Kew is doing, and why it’s so important. I will be sharing this with you soon too, but I wanted to talk to you about the people behind Kew, because I met a lot of them yesterday and they were wonderful, dedicated individuals with an enormous, undeserved weight on their shoulders. You can help them, and by helping them, you can help Kew Gardens.

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Wherever you come from, sign this petition, and if you’re in the UK, write to your MP (instructions are below the main text). It doesn’t matter where in the UK you live, because the wider the reach, the better. Although I’m in London now, I still contacted my old MP because technically I’m still registered there, and I thought it would make more sense to spread the word further afield. Neither of these things are hard or take much time, but they make a lot of ‘noise’ in parliament. We were told at the meeting that this ‘noise’ is what makes politicians take note of something – so the more of it you make, the more notice they’ll take.

The Palm House – Kew Gardens in Crisis

This place, this magical building bursting with life, is in danger.

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And so is the wonderful botanic garden and conservation heavyweight that contains it. That’s right. Our government is cutting its funding of Kew Gardens, endangering the history, collections and research that make it one of, if not the most important botanic gardens in the world.

I can’t believe I’ve only just heard about this stupidity. The government is making cuts left right and centre, which has resulted in a smaller workforce dealing with the same amount of work that they, and their old colleagues, were doing before that. The implication here is insulting – that government workers and civil servants weren’t pulling their weight beforehand. The vast number of hours the remaining workforce have clocked in overtime demonstrates that this just wasn’t true. What a surprise.

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Cutting Kew’s funding has had similar effects – but these won’t just negatively affect such unimportant areas as the NHS, the criminal justice system and the legal system (I hope you can hear the exhausted sarcasm here), these cuts affect the E N V I R O N M E N T. The current government hasn’t done nearly enough to protect the environment in the first place, but apparently they think they’ve been far too generous.

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Kew needs funding. It’s not a theme park, its not a trashy attraction in the centre of London with a metric tonne of touristy crap to buy. It’s quiet, sensible, beautiful and important. What does that mean? That is isn’t going to make enough money from ticket sales to operate without a subsidy, that’s what.

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I’m not trying to claim that Kew is a tiny victim that needs to be protected. It’s world renowned, has partnerships with huge corporations and an annual footfall of over a million. But a botanic garden and massive research centre has employees, it has costs, and when every square inch of a place isn’t built to make a profit, that means it isn’t going to make much profit. That’s the fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism, that everything worthwhile will make money. Frankly, the opposite is true, but I’ll get sidetracked if I say any more on that subject.

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Kew’s sponsorship was fulfilled, and cut, by DEFRA, who I actually have some experience working with. They [were?] a very creative government agency who a few years ago subsidised the creation of a website called Our Land, that encourages UK tourists to spend their holidays in eco-friendly places in protected destinations like the Cotswolds, the South Downs, the Cairngorms and the New Forest. The idea was that tourism was the only way to keep these areas profitable, and so by promoting tourism they were protecting the areas. The website is gone now but you can still find places in the UK on the parent website, Responsible Travel.

Very clever, and exactly what is happening in the rainforest with organisation like the Rainforest Alliance. There was some disagreement within DEFRA about cutting Kew’s funding, and I’m sure they were under pressure to make cuts because of all this austerity b******t, so hopefully the people who actually care about the environment are still there. Or maybe I just want to like them because working for Our Land was what financially allowed me to volunteer with Crees.

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I wanted to make a post talking about how magical the Palm House is, how it was hotter and more humid than the real rainforest and made me feel like I was in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Those things are true, but when I read about the threats and cuts being made, I couldn’t just keep my mouth shut. Enjoying natural beauty is great, but when we can, we have a responsibility to preserve and protect the things that please us.

On the 8th of July, there will be a Parliamentary Rally asking the government to reverse the cuts, and to cancel proposed new cuts too. You could go along and support it, you could tweet, send a letter to your MP, tell all your friends, or just generally spread the word. Our planet is in crisis, we are destroying the environment. Kew’s research can and will help us save it – help save them so they can do their job.

Update: I went to the Parliamentary Rally. Read about it here.

The Arboreal Pit Viper

If you watched I Bought A Rainforest this Sunday, you’ll no doubt have been fascinated by Andy Whitworth and the world of the Crees Foundation. When Charlie Hamilton James and his crew – the hilariously entertaining Adrian and Hector – arrived at Crees we were in the middle of the monthly Leaf Drying. Crees is running a 20 year long Biomass study with Oxford University, to investigate the content and abundance of leaf litter on the forest floor.

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Every month, leaf litter is collected from designated areas all over the reserve, for the volunteers and interns to separate, dry and weigh. It takes days, because the bags of litter have to be sorted into seeds, leaves and sticks, then dehydrated slowly in a drying oven, and weighed after each stint until they stop getting lighter (this final dry weight is then the one that gets recorded). This is why so many of us were home in the middle of the day when Andy was showing Charlie a deadly Arboreal Pit Viper, known locally as a Loro Machaco. We crowded round, excited to watch the photography unfold.

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As Andy briefed Charlie on the snake, we all began to wonder if getting him getting this close to something so deadly was wise – Charlie still had almost an entire TV series to film. Lexi, another staff member, ran off to our enormous first aid box (a necessity when the nearest doctor is a 40 minute boat ride and 30 minute hike away) and brought back the anti-venom kit. It sat on the side of the Project Room, reassuringly present during the filming.

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Screenshot from I Bought A Rainforest – watching carefully as Andy wrangles the snake

The snake (who is still one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen) has a seriously awesome tongue. Charlie really wanted to get a photo of it as it flicked out. But snakes don’t just flick their tongues for fun. They do it to scope out warm prey, and there was only so many times that expertly brave Andy could move his hand towards the snake before the risk got too high. He suggested we warm up a banana in the leaf drying oven, to simulate a body that would pique the interest of the viper’s heat sensing pits. I ran off to the cage we kept the bananas in (yes a cage – no other way to keep the insects away!) selected the snake’s victim and put it in the heated wooden box. After a few minutes we removed it, and Andy waved the fruit near the snake – it was immediately alert, its tongue curiously tasting the air for the source of the warmth. Charlie got some stunning shots, and we returned to our afternoon of leaf drying whilst listening to a combination Reggaeton, and each other’s iPods.

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Charlie’s programme was eye opening, moving and incredibly important. He’s given us a rare opportunity to see every aspect of the incredibly complicated issues that the Amazon, and the people in it, face. The lesson to be learned is that the people who will ultimately save the rainforest are the people who call it home. All we can do is use our monied privilege to help in any way we can.

I am a past volunteer of the Crees Foundation and an avid supporter of their incredible work. This post was written completely independently of them and was done from memory – so apologies if I got anything wrong! If you want to read more about Crees click here. If you want to help them support the development of a sustainable Amazon, click here. And if you want to read more about Charlie Hamilton James’  work in the Amazon, click here

Saving the Rainforest

I stood still, silent. Around me the forest creatures chirped, squawked, trilled and croaked.  The longer I stood the more I could hear, unknown numbers of infinite species. I had been in the Amazon Rainforest for just a few weeks and already two new frog species had been found. One was new to the area but already documented by scientists, while the other, with a lime green body and bright yellow toe webbing, was an entirely new discovery. It was staggering to witness first-hand this abundance and diversity of life, to see a hundred different kinds of butterfly in one day, to hear fifty different birds call in one morning.

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The lush greenery pressed in from all sides; moss covered branches, enormous leaves, and thick tree trunks all moist with the clean, humid air. Between the trees I could make out the peak of a mountain in the distance, coated in the undulating canopy of ancient forest. I heard the high, wavering call of a Tinamou, gentle yet louder than the small insects and amphibians around me.

I was in the Amazon Rainforest. But the trees that stood tall, supporting this massive collection of life, were only thirty years old. Before that, in the sixties, the area was a cattle ranch. You can still see the remains of a stone building at the top of a hill, perhaps an old outpost or cabin. Known as regenerating rainforest, when the cattle ranch closed the forest was left alone, allowed to grow back without restriction.

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Trees put down roots, undergrowth spread, and mammals, reptiles, insects, birds and amphibians returned in their droves. This area is proof that the rainforest can be saved, that we can fix the destruction our greed and ignorance has wreaked on the lungs of the earth. It takes time, of course, but animals make the most of the thick undergrowth that covers the regenerating forest floor. Birds and monkeys even put the smaller trees to good use, moving easily through the thinner canopy. Animals can happily adapt to these minor changes – whilst still enjoying their original pristine rainforest just as much as the newer parts.

In fifty years time, the canopy in this area will be as high and dense as nature allows, the floor will be dark, and what was once new growth will again be part of the ancient, wild, wonderland we call the Amazon. However, there will come a point where the jungle can no longer grow back, when we cut too far for it to heal. But it hasn’t happened yet. If we act now, we can save the rainforest.

I was inspired to write this post by the new BBC2 series ‘I Bought a Rainforest‘ which has been highlighting the massive, complex issues facing the rainforest. If you would like to learn more about CREES, the amazing conservation charity I was involved with, please take a look at their website and current fundraising campaign, which will help the Amazonian people to live sustainably.