Weekly Witter: Out of the strong came forth sweetness

Spring is a time of joy for all naturalists, leaf burst and blossom delighting all of us, not least the entomologist who has suffered a long and bleak winter with hardly a buzz or a flutter of wings. The search for the rare and spectacular is most definitely on and it’s not in praise of leaf or flower that I devote this blog. I’m celebrating a sweet and intoxicating liquor, a dark brown liquid that oozes, bubbles and even gurgles from trees. Sap-runs or flux as they are sometimes known, prove irresistible to insects and insect hunters alike.

There are many reasons why sap might spring from trees, bacterial disease, physical damage or the attentions of wood boring insects such as the chunky larvae of the goat moth which might spend five years developing on the frugal diet of solid wood. Whatever causes the sap to flow from the tree there are rich pickings for insects. Flies, beetles and wasps are all attracted to the sugary secretions. While some of the species such as red admirals and wasps are fairly ordinary, there’s a chance of finding more rare species per square inch than any other habitat I know.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The tree in the photograph was in a field at Maidenhead and Cookham Commons and is clearly in decline although the sap runs are a symptom rather than the cause. One of the first things I check for on such trees are the exit holes of the twin-spot wood-borer, a formerly rare beetle that has become much more common as a result of acute oak decline. These beetles, sometimes implicated in the spread of disease leave holes that are distinctive for being flattened on one side, much like a D. There was no sign at all of where this handsome beetle had been, indeed despite seeing hundreds of holes on scores of trees I’d never seen this species in over ten years of trying. Other species though were there in abundance.

Wasps were frequent, along with their bigger cousins the hornet. These, despite their fearsome reputation are luckily kind-tempered; praiseworthy when poring over the trunk with your nose an inch away from where they feed. Sap-beetles, fungus beetles and hoverflies all flocked to the sweet sap. The rare brown tree-ant, a real southern speciality was busy, scurrying across the trunk, drinking sap and seemingly attending hoverfly larvae that were immersed in the syrupy stream. Several hoverflies are known to breed exclusively in sap runs, some of these are tiny and rather dowdy but the inflated hoverfly is a much more robust beast. This inch long fly is a dapper black and orange affair and always a pleasure to see.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

Red admiral butterflies had settled onto the trunk to feed occasionally flashing their wings to startle other insects attempting to muscle in. The smell of the sap was even tempting enough to lure a purple emperor away from its sylvan kingdom. After a good twenty minutes of inspecting the insect life on this once mighty tree I thought that the emperor would be the highlight. Just as I turned to walk away, another insect alighted at the foot of the tree, the wings creating an audible buzz as it did so. Its slim shape and spangled appearance gave it away as one of my most sought after species. Agrilus pannonicus, the oak jewel beetle, the twin-spot wood-borer (so good they named it thrice), a Holy Grail that serendipity (and sap) had seen fit to allow me to meet.

oak j Oak Jewel Beetle

Oak Jewel Beetle

  • Peter Brash is a wildlife and countryside advisor for the National Trust. He specialises in animal ecology; specifically birds, insects and bats. As well as the surveying of habitats, wildlife interpretation and engagement.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Battle of Britain’s bluebells

The Natural History Museum online Bluebell Survey

Are British bluebells under threat?

Are British bluebells under threat?

Since 2006 scientists at the NHM have been asking the public to look more closely at one of Britain’s best loved plants and report their data online. Initially driven by the desire to understand whether this iconic species was indeed threatened by an invasive alien, the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), our work soon became a quest to understand just what the plant we thought of as the Spanish Bluebell was and where it had come from, before we could begin to understand what we were seeing in the British countryside. Molecular work demonstrated that the Spanish and English Bluebells were very similar, indeed there was as much genetic variation between the populations of Spanish bluebell isolated on the different mountain ranges across Iberia as there was between it and our native plant. Study of the narrow zone where they meet in northern central Spain revealed a confusing mix, just like we can find in urban areas in Britain. Only geographical isolation has kept them apart and distinct as there is no apparent barrier to breeding between them. As a consequence our horticultural endeavours have in less than 250 years done much to undo the last 10,000 plus years of isolation and evolution!

“So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements?”

It became clear that the plant which had become associated in British botanist’s minds as typical Spanish Bluebell was actually a triploid, the like of which our criss-crossing of Iberia had failed to find. It is likely that if this didn’t arise early in cultivation it was of a selected form, picked out for its robustness and vigour (and not for its charm!) not subsequently found in the wild. It was also obvious that over time plants from different parts of Iberia had found their way to British gardens and because of the variability in the species we could determine that our problem plants might better be called Portugese rather than Spanish Bluebells!

“Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes…”

So were the doom merchants justified in their apocalyptic statements? To an extent yes – with no barrier between them interbreeding will occur wherever the taxa meet, and our gardens, wherever they be across the country, the British public had shown us were full of hybrid plants. It was also clear that the major ancient woodland areas supporting the world’s largest stands of Hyacinthoides non-scripta were, as yet, largely unsullied and untainted by the alien. In areas around our major towns and cities, where ancient woodland habitats are small and fragmented and in close proximity to gardens and fly-tippers, populations were mixed. The message thus then became one of educating the public not to dispose of unwanted garden plants irresponsibly. Plants abandoned on roadsides adjacent to major native populations may inexorably spread alien genes although encouragingly it seems that most pollinator movements may be going the other way, from our native plants to the invaders.

Having better established the distribution of alien plants (or their genes) within the British Isles we then decided that our survey may provide us with an excellent opportunity to build a more robust data set looking at the phenology of flowering in this species, which may help provide evidence on the existence and effects of climate change. To do this meaningfully requires very many years’ worth of data (not least to counter natural yearly fluctuations such as we see now) and as many members of the public contributing as possible, hopefully with the same plants recorded year after year. Responses to the survey peaked late in the flowering period last year following my appearance on the BBC’s One Show and we hope that all those people who contributed then will do so again this year. Last year our first records were made early in the first week of March, some five weeks or more ahead of our first this year and most plants I see even in the cities heat are still more than a fortnight from flowering.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

A stunning bluebell display at Fountains Abbey.

By carefully identifying plants using our online guidance, with the fallback of being able to send images to me here at the museum enquiries team (ias2@nhm.ac.uk) to help with this, it will be possible to document whether hybrid and Spanish plants do flower earlier so that we can discount this as one cause of change in flowering time and behaviour.

  • Fred Rumsey- Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, NHM
  • Experts at the National Trust believe that due to the late spring, British bluebells are still weeks away from flowering. Read more here.

USA: Living Classrooms on Guam

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

In partnership with INTO and ICOMOS, today we are celebrating the International Day for Monuments and Sites. This year’s theme is the “Heritage of Education.” And one of the very first places in the world to greet the day is Guam, over 8,000 miles from the U.S. Capitol in the Western Pacific Ocean. Its indigenous inhabitants, the Chamorro, became U.S. citizens in 1950 though the territory has yet to achieve its self determination status.  Since the 16th Century, Guam has operated as a strategic outpost for the Spanish and United States, and, briefly, during World War II, the Japanese.

In recent years, Guam has seen a resurgence of interest in the values and belief systems of the ancient Chamorro. This cultural renaissance has resulted in a resurrection of the Chamorro language particularly among the island’s youth, and prompted renewed interest in traditional music and dance, arts and crafts, and medicinal practices.

Educators have found that teaching about the ancient Chamorro way of life can be greatly enhanced by on-site visits to the village sites that predated Western contact. However, the U.S. military owns roughly 30% of the island, much of it on the island’s north where several potential teaching areas remain. As a result, these places are virtually impossible for school groups to access given rigid base security procedures.

Hiking to Pagat

Hiking to Pagat

Enter Pågat: one of the last ancient village sites that is still publicly accessible on Guam, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Mostly owned by the Chamorro Land Trust, public access to Pågat requires a steep descent down a coastal bluff from a main highway on the island’s northeastern edge. The site includes tangible artefacts of the past life there before the Spanish forcibly removed its inhabitants in a 16th Century campaign notoriously known as reducción.

Dr. Marilyn Salas, Professor of Culture and Education at University of Guam, frequently leads groups of college students to Pågat to show them firsthand the medicinal plants, potsherds, and pillar foundations of ancient houses, known as latte stones, which have became the most recognisable symbol of the island’s pre-colonial heritage.  Regarding the significance of the site as a teaching tool, Salas exclaims:  

“Taking my students to Pågat village is the core and essence of culture and education on Guam. Teaching and learning takes place the moment we step onto the head trail.”

A central feature at Pågat is its deep limestone cave, which contains a cool pool of freshwater and requires a flashlight to enter. In addition to being a great respite from the tropical heat, one can imagine how spiritually significant the cave must have been as the only freshwater source in the area.  It was literally the lifeblood of the village that once thrived there.

Starting in 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the U.S., in cooperation with We Are Guahan, and the Guam Preservation Trust successfully led an effort to keep Pågat open to the public and free from the nuisance of a complex of firing ranges. The U.S. military had proposed the training facilities on a nearby bluff which sparked outrage in the community.  Prompted by a court ruling in 2012 in favor of heritage advocates, the military has now pledged to do additional studies, putting the threats to the site on a temporary, and, hopefully, permanent hold.

I had the chance to visit Pågat several times with Joe Quinata, Chief Preservation Officer with the Guam Preservation Trust. Joe promotes heritage education on Guam in classic Chamorro style – with a joyous spirit and infectious enthusiasm for teaching others.  Though western archaeologists have confined the site’s significance to its tangible remains, Joe explains that the site’s significance is much broader, taking into account the traditional cultural practices that take place along the eastern coast of the island. Fishing, hunting, and most importantly medicinal practices occur seasonally in the area. On the hike he points out medicinal plants, significant breadfruit and banyan trees, and remind travellers that respect for the whole cultural environment which supported the survival of the site’s people is necessary to true preservation.

As is quite common in preservation advocacy, the efforts to “Save Pågat” have resulted in even greater attention to the site’s unique qualities and consciousness for the betterment of Guam’s heritage. It has proven that the protection of tangible places is necessarily intertwined with protecting the intangible – the values that embody the culture we put forward in the present.

USA: Hateful History – The Slave Dwelling Project

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Many countries interpret their histories through the buildings that they choose to restore and maintain.  The United States, although relatively young, does the same.  Many of the architecturally significant historic buildings still on the American landscape are testaments of a nation with a proud history.  Some of these buildings at some point through their history may have been threatened with demolition for various reasons.  They still exist because someone or some group did what was necessary to save them.  By accident or design, in our attempts to save those architecturally significant buildings we have managed to ignore those buildings that represent a scourge on American history.  Those are the dwellings that housed many generations of enslaved people in northern and southern states.

Since May 2010, I have been conducting the Slave Dwelling Project.  The concept is simple, locate extant former slave dwellings and ask the owners to spend a night in them.  Thirty-eight stays in dwellings located in the states of Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have proven successful in bringing much needed attention to these often neglected dwellings.  The stewards of these dwellings include private owners, non and for profit organizations and one college to date.

Initially, I would stay in these places alone but now I offer the opportunity for others to share the experience with me.  My most recent stay was at Hopsewee Plantation located on the North Santee River in Georgetown County, SC.  Although many, from descendants of slaves to descendants of slave owners, had shared this opportunity to spend the night with me in a slave dwelling before, this stay would be different.  Seven young African American males ages 14 – 16 were chosen for this stay.

Digital CameraUpon entering the cabin to prepare my spot for sleeping, I was not surprised that all seven young men chose the same side of the cabin.  I could not let them just drift off to sleep without first talking advantage of this teachable moment. I wanted to give them more details about what our ancestors endured for us to have the liberties that we enjoy today.  I asked fellow Civil War reenactors Terry James who would be sleeping in a slave cabin for the 12th time and Ramona La Roche who would be staying for the first time to join me in communicating with the young men.  My role in this teachable moment was minimized when Terry James led the discussion drawing on his experience of currently raising two teen age boys and his experience of sleeping in 11 cabins to date. When prompted by Ramona, I only had to chime in to keep the conversation in an historical context.  This involved telling the group about the movement westward of this young nation and how slavery factored into that movement.

As if planned, our teachable moment was pleasantly interrupted by owners Frank and Raejean Beattie, Raejean came to the side where Ramona, Terry and I were with the seven young men.  I queried Raejean as if the information that she was about to give me, I would be hearing for the first time.  She stated that she tries to avoid giving guided tours of the house because it usually becomes a tour about them and not the property and its past inhabitants.  She leaves the job of the house tours to the hired staff.  As she explained the history of Hopsewee, I could not help but to latch on to what she said about its connection to the invention of the water and steamed powered rice mill.   John Hume Lucas who owned the plantation from 1844 – 1853 was a successful rice grower and engineer and a relative of Jonathan Lucas, Jr. and Jonathan Lucas Sr.  Both Lucas’ Jr. and Sr. were responsible for inventing, building and perfecting rice mills.  I could not help but to interrupt her presentation to make connection to Eli Whitney and his invention of the cotton gin.  Both inventions increased the need for more slaves.

When Raejean and Frank left we became more grateful that the fireplaces in the cabin worked.  In anticipation of a cold night, Raejean and Frank provided enough fire wood to last throughout the night.  All of the young men were required to write essays about their sleeping experience in a slave cabin.  The content of those essays made me wonder what took me so long to figure out that these historic buildings, great stewards and the Slave Dwelling Project can provide great hands on learning opportunities for our youth.

USA: Lincoln and Self-Education

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Late one evening in the fall of 1864, President Lincoln received some unexpected visitors to his summer residence at Soldiers’ Home. George Borrett was visiting the United States from England, and wanted an audience with the President. Despite the late hour, Borrett and his escorts managed to talk their way into an audience with “the highest in the land,” and after waiting a few minutes Lincoln appeared with his “hair ruffled, eyes very sleepy and feet enveloped in carpet slippers.” Despite this “abrupt introduction” Borrett recorded that Lincoln spoke at length about his boyhood in Kentucky, and the Englishman detected a “quiet pride” in Lincoln’s voice as he talked about “his rise from the bottom of the ladder.” The scene is amusing in hindsight: a bedraggled president roused from his bedroom to meet with unknown visitors late in the evening. However, Borrett’s account also underscores Lincoln’s firmly held belief in what historians have labeled the “right to rise,” or the right to benefit from one’s hard work. Despite Lincoln’s lack of formal education, or perhaps because of it, Lincoln always insisted that it would play a critical role in facilitating other individual’s betterment of their own lives. Yet Lincoln also directly connected education to the citizenry’s appreciation of the American Union; it “was the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in,” because an educated people could “read the histories of his own and other countries” and thus “duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.” As a result, education could help people understand what the Union meant, and ultimately, why it would be worth fighting to preserve.

While Lincoln’s formal education amounted to little more than one year, what might be termed his self-education continued unabated throughout his life. Undoubtedly the most critical part of Lincoln’s self-education process was his love of reading, and perhaps the President’s favorite author was Shakespeare. Tales of political intrigue, deception, and bloody civil wars provided Lincoln with a framework for understanding his own struggles, with a means of conveying that understanding to the Northern public. For example, in June of 1864, as the President was preparing to spend what would be his final summer at Soldiers’ Home, he told an audience in Philadelphia that “this war has carried mourning to almost every home, until it almost be said that ‘the heavens are hung in black.’” In Shakespearean theater, the curtains were hung in black to inform the audience that a tragedy was about to be performed. Right around the same time Lincoln was declaring that ‘the heavens are hung in black’ the area apportioned for Civil War soldier burials at Soldier’s Home National Cemetery was filled to capacity, and a new cemetery opened across the Potomac at Arlington. Thus, Lincoln was using a reference gleaned from his own self-education to convey to the Northern public that he understood the depth of their frustration and despair at the seemingly unending bloodshed.

Lincoln's Cottage

Lincoln’s Cottage

As I sit here writing this post on the 148th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, I am reminded not just of the cost of the Civil War, but of the destruction that Lincoln faced everyday while staying at Soldiers’ Home. It is precisely this legacy of perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles that visitors to President Lincoln’s Cottage connect with—the human Lincoln, the man and president who could never escape the war—even at his beloved summer retreat.

Canada: A tale of 10 Story Trees and Rivers of Salmon

The Land Conservancy

Heritage Conservation means many things and there is no ‘correct’ definition. I grew up on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, a land of forests and rugged coast. The oldest buildings are no more than 160 years. The focus of most conservation efforts have been on the protection of the large stands of old growth forests. These magnificent trees are often over 400 years and stand taller than 10 story buildings. My first exposure to conservation was in efforts to preserve stands of these huge trees, but in 1997 the Land Conservancy of British Columbia was formed.

My associate Nichola Walkden and I set out to conserve the endangered grasslands of the British Columbia interior. Our assignment was to find a way to engage the rural communities in their preservation. We began a process of ‘landowner contact’, essentially visiting cattle ranchers. Visiting a ranch involved driving for hours on dirt roads either engulfed in clouds of dust or pushing through mud 4 to 6 inches deep. The ranchers were always cautious about meeting with ‘environmentalists’ from the coast. But inevitably our visits turned into long sessions drinking tea and coffee around kitchen tables and talking about the history of their communities and their industry. We learned that these ranching families knew an immense amount about their land, its history and the wildlife that surrounded them. Nichola and I quickly learned that if we were to conserve the grasslands we had to conserve the rural population which maintained and protected them. Without ranchers, there would be no ranches and without ranches grasslands would be lost to development. Lost too would be the rich history of the people who had pioneered these places, the remains of their structures and even the meanings of the place names.

Talking Mountain Ranch, in British Colombia

Talking Mountain Ranch, in British Columbia

This was the beginning of our connection to agriculture. As we learned the importance of working with ranchers we realized it was necessary to become involved in the conservation of biodiversity on all types of agricultural land. We also learned of the need to educate urban populations about where their food comes from, why it is important to purchase good quality local foods. We established programs recognizing those farmers and ranchers who farm in harmony with nature.

TLC has protected nearly 80,000 acres of grasslands and farmland in BC. This protection has involved long stretches of some of BC’s most important salmon rearing rivers, which in turn support Grizzly Bear, Eagles and thriving riparian communities.

Canada: INTO and the Victoria Declaration

In October 2011 the National Trusts of the world met in Victoria, BC, Canada for an international conference aimed at sharing best practices, discussing world issues and planning the best steps forward for INTO over the next several years. A prime theme of the conference was the importance of intangible heritage. The values of language, dance, culture and traditional ecological knowledge.

39351_142948862395349_5072678_nThe meeting produced the Victoria Declaration on the Implications for Cultural Sustainability of Climate Change. The Declaration points to the often overlooked impacts of climate change on communities, even entire nations though sea level rise, desertification, floods and fire.

The Declaration urges the global community, including in particular its leaders, to accept that Climate Change has significant detrimental impacts on cultures. That destruction of culture is a fundamental breach of the principle of intergenerational equity and thereafter urges them to modify their actions and strategies.

The Declaration concludes that:

“If the threat of climate change is largely described in terms of impacts on the physical environment, then the prospect of achieving global consensus for climate change action will always be undermined.   However, if the threats of climate change are also couched in terms of culture – of societal values – then there is likely to be greater responsiveness across the global community.   Put in terms of cultural identity, diversity and sustainability, the path to wider community understanding and so support for climate change action (be that mitigation or adaption) should be more achievable.  There will be engendered a greater willingness to embrace essential reforms.”

The Declaration was unanimously endorsed by the delegates and has become an important international paper having been taken by INTO representatives to subsequent COP17 and COP18  meetings, distributed widely and has formed the basis for several international initiatives. INTO – THE VICTORIA DECLARATION -.