Thursday, October 7, 2010

Detox With Biodiversity

After walking out of the World Bank for the last time on Thursday, I determined that I would have two days to detox from the intense admin and frenetic activity of the leaving process before flying home to the UK. There were places in DC I hadn’t seen in my 16 years based there and others I wanted to see once again. By great luck, the weather was glorious and just walking around the grand sights in DC was an uplifting  experience, especially when I saw a number of Monarch butterflies  flitting from flower to flower in roadside plantings in preparation for their imminent long flight down to Mexico. Other than a visit to the National Archives to see the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, my wanderings seemed to have a biodiversity theme. Not a huge surprise I guess.    

I started at  the National Museum of the American Indian, where I think one of the best things is the themed Mitsitam cafeteria because of the diversity of attractive and unusual grains, squashes, game, roots, and wild mushrooms on offer. The rest of this Museum always makes me sad - I've never understood why there isn't a National Day of Repentance for the terrible things perpetrated on the Native Americans. 

From there it was just a short walk to the United States Botanic Gardens below the Capitol. This glorious place doesn’t seem to be on the main tourist route.  At the entrance were two lovely slipper orchids from parts of Sumatra I know, displayed in a Wardian Case - the delicate little yellow Paphiopedilum primulinum, and the much larger and rather regal, purple-and-green striped P. tonsum. 

I was tempted to venture to the National Zoo but I’ve never really given enough time to the National Museum of Natural History. I had visited briefly a handful of times over lunch but always felt pressured to get back to my desk. Now I had no desk. The exhibition quality here is totally exceptional.  The taxidermy is flawless and the exhibits themselves are original and vibrant - wonderful examples would be the two lionesses attacking a buffalo, and the African Elephant bull in the Rotunda, both of which made me feel I was walking around frozen action scenes in The Matrix.  If you are able to go, don’t miss the preserved specimen of the Giant Isopod Bathynomus, an enormous relative of the woodlice and pill bugs in the Sant Ocean Hall.

Although I have spent some time in the behind-the-scene stacks of the Snails Section of the Museum, I’d never sought out the public snails exhibit which I assumed would celebrate the diversity, form, beauty and quirkiness of this group. Such a display wasn’t shown on the otherwise useful map and so I enquired at the Information Desk. The helpful gentleman told me "I've never been asked that before" and we concluded there was indeed no snail focus for people to wonder at anywhere in the vast museum. Clearly we have to work on ‘snail consciousness’.

One of the temporary exhibitions was Losing Paradise: Endangered Plants Here and Around the World which explores the beauty and diversity of the world’s endangered plants through forty-five beautiful paintings and other illustrations by members of the American Society of Botanical Artists. It was more than just art however because it tracked how the museum used its collections to predict the conservation status of plants in its collection.   One of the paintings which caught my eye, and not just for the delicate artistry, was that of another slipper orchid, the pink and white Paphiopedilum vietnamense from northern Vietnam in an area where my new employer, Fauna and Flora International, is active. Orchid taxonomists face a dilemma when they come across a new species because while it is important document and describe it, almost immediately, as soon as the news is out insatiable orchid collectors and their hired guns race off to strip every plant they can find from their natural habitat.  This Vietnam species is now regarded as Critically Endangered.    

In the fascinating David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins was a display of the tiny ‘Hobbit’ or Homo floresiensis which was discovered in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. The Komodo Dragon would have shared the island with these little people and I had thought about the terrors they would have faced when my family and I saw the dragons in the wild last year.

The next day I took off early to drive to the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay to revisit the 100-acre Battle Creek Cypress Swamp National Natural Landmark and County Park.  It is the northernmost site of naturally-occurring bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)  trees and it was purchased and saved by The Nature Conservancy in 1957.  I think it is a magical place and I love the kneed pneumatophore roots emerging from the mud.  As I walked around the Red-bellied Woodpeckers were calling noisily. The long-term future of the site is uncertain because the cypress seedlings are light-demanding and so do not regenerate beneath the canopy of their parents. Even when the park staff make gaps, Red Maple trees take over and steals the light from the cypress. 

After lunch with some dear friends I went to National Cathedral and wandered alone around the vast space above and the intimate crypt and chapels below.  The vision of those who built such an enormous and beautiful building open to all and so recently (it opened in 1990) is inspirational.  In terms of biodiversity, many types of animals – real and imagined – are carved as gargoyles around the cathedral, some so high that only with binoculars or a telescope can one see them well.  If you are doing that, keep an eye open for Darth Vader too.  

The stained glass windows of the cathedral are richly coloured and tell stories both spiritual and secular. The magnificent west Rose Window is on the theme of creation. One in the south nave recalls sights of the Lewis and Clark expedition and shows various State Plants and Animals many of which are now threatened by the various progression to the west that the explorers foresaw.

I finished the day by joining Evening Prayer in the Cathedral’s Great Choir, to pray with a grateful heart about the past 16 years - and with trepidation as I enter the future.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gearing up for change

With my departure from the World Bank now less than 50 days away I have been asked to ensure that there is a means of linking to and from the blog I have been writing on biodiversity at the World Bank.

I'm currently at home in Cambridge, UK, and have started a project to photgraph all the animal species in our garden. This is Syrphus ribesii, a common hoverfly.