Monthly Archives: July 2012

Readers of a nervous disposition may wish to skip this post. This week we venture into the thickets on the edge of the forest of academia, a dark and magical place from which many never return.

the thickets of academia


Once upon a very, very long time ago (about 200 million years ago) virtually all the continents were joined, forming the vast supercontinent of Pangaea. Or at least, that’s what the scientists tell us.

And such are the marvels of modern technology that these days anyone with the time, technology, inclination and english language skills can access the experts’ views – superficially at least – with a minimum of effort.

A recent study* of the Cupressaceae family and its distribution after the break up of Pangaea is a landmark because although these studies have been conducted before for fauna, this is the first equivalent study for flora. The study analyses the phylogenetic relationships of Cupressaceae (162 species in 32 genera) in relation to the break-up of Pangaea into the two supercontinents: Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south.

Now I am no scientist, and much of the six page paper gives me a headache. I cannot pretend to understand taxons, clades or Bayesian co-estimation of topology and divergence time (attractively abbreviated to BEAST, but I’m not sure why). I can only dimly make out what the sentence “Likelihood Ancestral Areas Ranges were implemented under the dispersal-extinction-cladogenesis model in Lagrange” might mean. All this is a direct result, no doubt, of my decision to forsake ‘O’ level biology at the age of 14 in preference for german. (A mistake, with the benefit of hindsight – but predicting history is a tricky business).

But what I can grasp is this: tree species have been evolving and migrating for hundreds of millions of years; adventurous scientists are working to track these wanderings, undaunted by the 200 million year head start the trees have been given; and – for this study at least – the scientists seem confident of their findings. “The dense taxon sampling and large amount of sequence data used here yielded a solidly supported phylogeny for the Cupressaceae”. Relief all round!

Their conclusions, and I hope I’ve got this right, are that the humble cypress family has been around and identifiable as a separate tree family for over 200 million years (ie before Pangaea split apart), and that its seven major lineages (sub-families) date back to the Triassic and Jurassic periods, pre-dating or coinciding with Laurasia and Gondwana’s wanderings. Like so many of the world’s wonders, this family seems to have originated in (what is now) Asia, with some descendants heading east into (what would become) North America during the late Jurassic (say, 150 million years ago), with relatively fewer heading south into (what would become) Africa and India, before those two land masses were shunted north again, up against the Eurasian land mass. So who says migration is a modern thing?

The paper goes on to explore through the fossil record the subsequent local extinction of some sub-families, in some regions, after continental separation. Its conclusions include the observation that “In Cupressaceae, the evidence for widespread extinction and range shrinkage is particularly strong. For example [the sub-families] Cunninghamioideae and Taiwanioideae were widely distributed in the northern hemisphere during the Cretaceous [period] but now are restricted to Asia… the Ice Ages of the past 2 million years further contributed to population extinction and reductions in species range.”

So why, I hear you ask, should anyone care about all this arcane stuff unless you happen to be a biogeography expert? (in which case you would hardly be bothering yourself with this post, unless perhaps to criticize or correct it). The answer comes in three parts, and is worth a moment of reflection:

1. The natural location of our planet’s trees is not an accident. It came about as a result of evolution, migration and climate change over a vastly long period far in excess of man’s engineering powers or planning horizons.

2. Although we tend to view trees as “static” (in our terms at least) this perception is a flawed one – caused only by our very short attention span. They really do get around.

3. Like all complex systems, the outcomes of external interventions (including those of mankind) may be predicted to some extent, but never with much hope of certainty. CAVEAT MUTATIO!

Now this all got me thinking about petrified forests (like you do), and once again the internet came up trumps. Browsing through the Wiki entry (another internet wonder!) for petrified forests, I was amazed to discover that one of the 20 or so countries suitable for exploring fossilized trees is… you guessed it… Saudi Arabia. There is a petrified forest “just north of Riyadh”.

The “Edge of the World” in Saudi Arabia
(photo courtesy of Saudi Arabian Fossils Homepage)

So now all I have to do is wait for the summer heat to abate, grab my trusty panama to shield me from the blistering arabian sun, and head off to the edge of the world in search of the start of the world.

Into the desert in search of  Pangaea…

wish me luck


* “Distribution of living Cupressaceae reflects the breakup of Pangaea” PNAS journal, 1st May 2012.


Bizarre mangrove world,

litorally most hostile

oozing odd objects.

Pneumataphores gasp,

anaerobic soils rinsed by

anoxic water.

Strange life forms beckon.

Viviparous propagules

seeking distant soils.

This weekend I had some business in Abu Dhabi, so I took the opportunity to find out a little more about the city of excess. It proved to be a great weekend for UNLEARNING*.  Forty-eight hours are not enough to claim that I know much – either about Abu Dhabi or about mangrove trees – but here are some  things I unlearned this weekend. Maybe you too will unlearn one or two items…
…and I’ve even thrown in some haikus as part of a desperate attempt to bump up my readership.
1. Abu Dhabi is not just about excess.
OK – it is mostly about excess: among the wealthiest per capita nations; highest per capita water consumption; fastest roller-coaster; most leaning building; etc, etc.

Abu Dhabi – a little off balance?

But in amongst those adolescent “look at me” gestures, there are some quieter, saner, activities to be applauded, and one of these is the emirate’s real efforts to protect and develop its mangrove ecosystem. And if you look carefully, in among the mangroves, you may spot a few brightly colored kayaks quietly conveying tourists like me to the edge of a strange alien world. As of last Thursday I can personally recommend the Noukhada Adventure Company if you are planning a trip. A fantastic introduction to mangrove magic, and a great antidote to the city of excess.

[“helping to develop eco-tourism for Abu Dhabi and the UAE through kayaking, sailing, blokarting and trail biking” – www. .

a peaceful, low impact, interaction

2. Not all mangroves live in swamps
My second unlearning of the day was that the words “mangrove” and “swamp” are not inextricably linked, as they seem to have been in my mind since childhood. Not all mangroves live in swamps, and not all swamps are hosts to mangroves. For some reason I always associate mangroves with (a) swamps, and hence (b) mosquitoes, and (c) crocodiles. I’m delighted to report that on Thursday I experienced mangroves up close and personal without even a whisper of swamp, mosquito or crocodile. And now I know that the correct term for the mangrove ecosystem is “mangal”. But take care! This word can also mean a Turkish barbecue, a Pushtun tribe, a Hindi font or a Bulgarian gypsy.

Mangal magic

3. There is no such thing as a “mangrove tree”.
(Less technically minded readers or those with an aversion to Latin may choose to skip this section)
This half truth surprised me. Unlike oaks, which all belong to the genus Quercus, or willows (Salix), “mangrove” is a term for many different families and genera. Like many tree “facts”, no-one seems entirely sure about the exact numbers. Estimates range from 7 (Guyana mangrove restoration project) to 110 species (Wikipedia) with a consensus vaguely discernible at around 60 to 70 species. We’ll keep it simple and colorful by mentioning just three main genera: Avicennia (9 species? – including the black and grey mangroves);  Rhizophora (8 species? – including the red mangrove, with the delicious name Rhizophora mangle); and Laguncularia (10 species? – but not all are mangroves – including the white mangrove, Laguncularia racemosa).
So – as you can see – all generalizations about mangroves should be taken with a large pinch of the salt which the grey mangrove, Avicennia marina, excretes from its leaves.

grey mangrove tears

4. The mangal is not useless marginal territory waiting to be put to better use by enterprising capital
If I had time, and you had the reading patience, I could fill another post completely on this topic. But I have zero credentials as an eco-warrior, so I’ll be brief. Sadly, it’s a common enough story of the early twenty first century: a natural resource, misunderstood, under-estimated, used and abused in the last century (in this case, mainly abused) and only slowly revealing its true value. Mangal has been described as the “supermarket of the sea” for its superior protection for the young of many, many forms of sea-life (think Nemo in the sea anenomes, but without all that garish Disney color). I’m reliably informed that it also boasts very high levels of carbon sequestration compared to terrestrial trees; and that its value as a tsunami-break (slowing and diffusing the power of the wave) is more and more recognized. In the Americas there is a growing conflict between shrimp farmers and those who recognize the true value of the mangal.  You can read about it in “Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea” by Kennedy Warne [Island Press, 2011].
So I hope  I’ve given you a taster for what I think is a little known and even less appreciated world of the mangal. There are many other wonderful oddities I’m only just beginning to understand. For example: the red mangrove has evolved a fantastic propagation technique called a “viviparous propagule” which germinates into a miniature tree while still attached to its parent, and behaves like a fishing float after it falls to the water, righting itself at auspicious moments to search for a suitable anchor site.
But I fear, kind readers, that even those few of you who have stuck with me this far may now  find your attention wandering like the propagule, looking for a new place to plant your attention…
One final comment on Abu Dhabi, and one thing I did not manage to unlearn, even after a personal visit, was just how extravagant is the Emirates Palace Hotel (of the “World’s most expensive Christmas tree” fame).

the house of bling


bling, bling… ka-ching

 I’m sure there is good to be found even here, but I decided to look elsewhere…  
Have you unlearned* anything valuable this week?        
* UNLEARNING – the healthy habit of re-visiting all those cherished prejudices and preconceptions which we use to get through the day without constant overload. Regular unlearning should, in my humble opinion, be mandatory for all over 25 year olds, but since this blog is for sharing, not preaching, I’m relegating this thought to a footnote.

A Saudi colleague returned this week from a holiday in London.

I felt obliged, as a former resident for 30 years, to ask him whether he enjoyed it. Of course he did. He loved the museums, the theatres, the streetlife and the walking. He loved the cooler air of North West Europe. The tubes were crowded and the roads congested, prices were outrageous and olympic preparations in full swing, but he and his wife had a wonderful time.

But most of all he enthused over London’s marvellous parks and green spaces. So many lovely areas set aside for the pleasure and relaxation of its citizens. It couldn’t happen in many cities, he lamented – too many powerful interests grabbing land for its development value. How wonderful for Londoners and visitors to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of those special places set aside for their daily use.

London’s Green Park

And his enthusiasm has inspired this post. He has a point. The British are a self-deprecating bunch, always ready to dismiss their merits and dwell on their (neighbours’) failings. London is a marvel which the locals are all too ready to discount, but its green spaces are truly a source of pride and celebration.

This month’s olympic city is one of the greenest capitals in the world, with a multitude of open spaces. At the last count, there were more than 3,000 parks and open spaces in the city. Even the oldest part of the metropolis, the “Square Mile” which traces its street plan back to Roman and Medieval times, has oases of green sewn into the fabric of the stone.

As London basks in the Olympic limelight over the next few weeks, here are three little tasters of my favourite escapes gleaned from the quieter moments during 30 years of hustle and bustle. Where else could you enjoy not just trees, but everything from Aerobics to Zoos and Deckchairs to Dinosaurs? And remember, for each one I’ve chosen a thousand more are waiting to be discovered…

1.  St Paul’s Churchyard

Take a break at the very heart of the old city to enjoy the office workers finding time for a sandwich and the tourists seeking new angles on some very well photographed architecture. Relish the red London buses passing just a few noisy metres away, somehow muffled by the pigeons and roses. Don’t miss the splendid Gingkos hidden away at the North East corner of this little haven  – dwarfed by the massive London planes.

gingkos at St Pauls

2. Greenwich Park

Away from the hubbub of the City, take your binoculars for a morning in Greenwich Park, avoiding the joggers and taking in the panoramic views across centuries of London’s history, from the Cutty Sark and Queen Anne’s house in the foreground, across the Thames to the pinnacles of Canary Wharf, and for vistas away to the Olympic stadium in the North East.

The view from Greenwich Park

Be sure to look out for its famous ancient sweet chestnuts, Castanea sativa

famous sweet chestnuts

3. Crystal Palace Park

Take a picnic and spend the whole day if you venture south to my personal favorite, Crystal Palace Park. It’s a bit of a trek from the centre, but definitely worth the effort.  Why not take the train and enjoy tantalising glimpses of Londoners’ back gardens?

Crystal Palace Park is one of London’s hidden treasures. To take a trip to this hill-side heaven is to journey back into London’s history – it is a Victorian gem. It deserves a post of its own. Travel back to 1853 when the Crystal Palace was dismantled and moved from its original location in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition.

Victorian splendour at Crystal Palace

Alas! You are 76 years too late to see the real thing – destroyed by fire in 1936.

Or let your imagination wander back to 1866, when the park hosted Britain’s first National Olympian Games thirty years before the true Olympics were reborn in Athens. Picnic by the lake, stroll in the avenue, wander in the maze, wonder at the museum, or just sit back and enjoy the trees. But be sure to find your way towards the lower (Southeast) end of the park to meet the dinosaurs!

Victorian whimsy

So if you are lucky enough to be a visitor to London during the Olympic celebrations, or if you are planning a trip at some point in the future, be sure to MAKE TIME to indulge yourself with a dose of green city therapy as a counterpoint to the Urban Rush. And for those of you – like me – who have spent many years in London but are somehow always just a little too busy to appreciate it: DO IT NOW!
… and finally, this is a great opportunity to express a heartfelt thanks to the many thousands of individuals who quietly play their part to keep the metropolis a green and pleasant land. Thank you!

praying for sunny days

Enjoy London, and I hope the sun shines on residents, athletes, and visitors alike in the coming weeks.

Abu Dhabi enjoys a curiously Janus like reputation in the Middle East.

Looking east from Riyadh, the emirate looks brash and glitzy, an alluringly modern young man, but looking west from fantasy Dubai it seems dour and conservative –  a kill-joy parent only good to bail you out when things get out of hand. Relatives can be hard to handle.

Warner Brothers were refused permission to film Sex and The City 2 in the emirate, and had to settle for Morocco, slyly inserting shots of Abu Dhabi later. But this didn’t stop the New York Times from slamming both the film and the (feigned) location:

“Sex and the City 2 flees into a never-never land that manages to be both an escape from contemporary reality and an off-key, out-of-touch mirror of it. The emirate to which the four friends repair is an oasis of gilded luxury in a world that has grown a little ambivalent about unbridled commodity fetishism… The ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.”

So what – I hear you grumbling – has all this got to do with trees?

Well, to try to make some sense of all this ambiguity I decided to apply my newly invented Hoggs-Bison® googlemetric* which provides a measure of a civilization based on how a community chooses to interact with its trees. So – skipping lightly over the ominous news that many of Abu Dhabi’s palm trees are imported from Florida – here is the evidence for the prosecution, based on a random selection of recent news items portraying the emirate’s sylvan behaviour.

1. Abu Dhabi Hotel Regrets $11 Million Christmas Tree

In December 2010 The Huffington Post reported that “An Abu Dhabi luxury hotel that boasted an $11 million Christmas tree decorated with gold and gems admitted Sunday it may have taken the holiday spirit a bit too far. A statement from the Emirates Palace hotel said it regretted ‘attempts to overload’ the Christmas tree tradition by adorning it with premium bling including gold, rubies, diamonds and other precious stones from a hotel jeweler”. The hotel later retracted its statement of regret, and three months later the tree made the Guinness Book of Records (“The most expensive Christmas tree ever created”).

Christmas Bling

2.  800 year old olive tree planted in Abu Dhabi Development

In July 2011 reported that this 800 year old olive tree – imported from Lebanon – has been planted on a new business and residential development as a “centerpiece to be something unique”  chosen for its “character and historic significance”. A new twist on Lebanon’s 6000 year timber exports.

never too old to travel?

3. Excessive watering poses danger to date palm trees in Abu Dhabi

In June this year, reported that date palms, which apparently need 300 litres of water a day to flourish, are routinely being given 2100 litres, making them susceptible to weak roots, pests and disease.  Abu Dhabi has the highest per capita water consumption in the world – 550 litres per day, compared to the global average of 350 litres, and the agricultural sector alone consumes 1.5 billion cubic litres of water a year, which is 52 per cent of the total consumption of the emirate.

4. Goats in a Ghaf

By way of contrast, here is Prosopis cineraria, known locally as the Ghaf tree, the UAE’s national tree, which is currently threatened by over-grazing (goats) and over chopping (humans).

stately ghaf, the UAE national tree

and just in case you doubt the destructive power of goats…

goat power

but we are straying from the City…

So how best can we make sense of all this? The Green Prophet blog (a “sustainable voice for green news on the Middle East region” – pointed out in November 2011 that an ongoing campaign to plant one million trees in Abu Dhabi (admirable in itself) seems like one more luxury the Emirate can scarcely afford. Apparently The Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) has planted one million trees in four years in order to stave off climate change and desertification, and to restore its heritage of indigenous trees, but as Green Prophet so neatly summarizes the conundrum:

“Without trees, the planet will heat up even faster and our air quality will worsen. Without water, on the other hand, life simply can’t exist; life grows where water flows.”

Abu Dhabi: paragon or pastiche? You decide.

* the  Hoggs-Bison® googlemetric uses modern browser technology to evaluate the level of porkies oversimplification and good old PRBS in modern spin generated sound-bites. 

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” (Benjamin Franklin).

stamped and catalogued…

Today, I found Franklinia alatamaha, a very fitting specimen for the 4th of July.

“Discovered” in 1765 in the British Colony of Georgia, USA, by an American (William Bartram) in the pay of the British (Dr John Fothergill), the Franklin tree was – at the time – enjoying a quiet and uneventful life, which included routinely producing fragrant white flowers with the beauty of Camellia and the scent of Honeysuckle. The Franklinia had no name – except perhaps an Indian title lost through the  nineteenth century haze. It was a delicate creature, not keen on travel and fussy where it put down roots.

Alas, the days of liberty were passing in the West…

By 1773, when Bostonians were brewing tea in their harbour, it was being hunted across the American South.

By 1777, as British and Americans battled across the North East, its seeds had been collected.

By 1781 it had been bred in captivity, while the US articles of “Confederation and Perpetual Union” were being ratified.

By 1785 it had been catalogued in the Arbustrum Americanum. The newly independent Americans were busy signing the Treaty of Hopewell with the Cherokee, which laid out a Western boundary for white settlement…

And by 1803, when Jefferson successfully purchased “Louisiana” (actually 828,000 square miles stretching all the way to Canada) for 3 cents an acre, less than 40 years after the Franklin tree first drew attention, it had ceased to exist in the wild.

Those twin collosi of nineteenth century progress – industry and organisation – were stirring. In the Southern US their agents, cotton and specimen collectors, were laboring towards a brave new world.

“saved from extinction”

Today, every franklinia tree in existence is a direct descendent from seeds cultivated by William Bartram and his father, John.

A census in 1998 identified 2,000 specimens in  38 US states and in 8 other countries. Bartram’s Garden, in Philadelphia -  is one such detention centre.