7 December 2007

Reversal of fortune

Maori legend holds that you daren't speak its name. When digging for it in the forests of New Zealand, its true name of perei must never be said aloud, or the orchid will hear its pursuers coming and hide away. No amount of digging will uncover its delicious tubers then. It was not formed of the earth like other vegetables, but was a gift sent by the gods. The term maukuuku is substituted for the one true name so that the orchid won't be startled...

Tasting somewhat like cinnamon-spiced potato, the underground rhizomes of the Gastrodia orchid have always lured people into searching them out wherever they grow. Ancient Chinese folklore includes the story of an old man who collected Gastrodia in the mountains every spring. One year, after a complete season of searching without finding a single tuber, the man decided to grow the elusive plant himself. He prepared a field, sowed the seeds fine as dust, and waited. A year later the field was still barren - someone must have stolen his crop. At the next planting season, he set up a shack next to his field and proceeded to watch it, day in day out. At harvest time he dug up the whole field without finding a single tuber. The wise old man concluded that the plant must be a gift from heaven, not meant to be cultivated. He named it tianma, meaning 'from heaven', and since that time everybody knew that no mere mortal could ever grow it.

Just by looking at it, one can tell that Gastrodia is no ordinary orchid. It lacks the basic structures that makes things plants, for a start. It has no leaves, no stems, and no roots. All it consists of is a small rounded subterranean rhizome. Infrequently, it will burst into bloom and produce a tall red inflorescence bearing small curious flowers. How does this thing live? Is it magic? How does it obtain nutrients? Why doesn't it need chlorophyll like other plants? Gastrodia is not a parasite, because it doesn't possess structures that enter the vascular tissues of other plants, like the insiduous haustoria of dodder or mistletoe do. It is not a parasite. Or is it? In fact, in a roundabout way, it is. In order to survive, it is entirely reliant on a fungus. This relationship is termed mycoheterotrophy and is a corruption of the symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships between fungi and plants. It is also a pretty neat reversal of the concept of pathogenic fungi that obtain their nutrients from plants. Armillaria mellea is a deadly fungal parasite of trees. Most of its tissues consist of a mass of underground hyphae called the mycelium, which lives off decaying plant matter in the soil. However, when the fungus finds a tree to infect, these hyphae branch out into fibres that resemble black bootlaces. They rapidly form a network under the bark of the tree, slowly taking nutrients from it and causing the tree roots to rot. Once the tree has succumbed, the fungus sprouts edible fruiting bodies from its carcass, the honey mushrooms so cherished in haute cuisine.

In the wild, all orchids need fungi in order to germinate. Orchid seeds are very small, some consisting essentially of only a couple of cells surrounded by a thin layer of protective tissue. A single orchid capsule can release millions of these seeds to the wind, with the chances of successful germination being very slim indeed. When the seed of an orchid encounters a mycorrhizal fungus, a strange thing starts to happen: the fungus enters the seed. At first it looks like the orchid is doomed. However, the tables are turned and the orchid proceeds to receive nutrients from the fungus. Instead of carrying its nutrients with it in the form of a bigger seed, the orchid relies on the fungus to supply its first meal. Cells start to divide, chlorophyll is made, the orchid turns green, and eventually the tiny orchid seedling can photosynthesize and provide for itself. The Gastrodia orchid interacts in such a way with the fungus called Mycena osmundicola to form its rhizome. There it lies in wait for its next encounter. Armillaria is virtually everywhere; it doesn't need to wait long. Soon the Armillaria filaments come into contact with the rhizome underground and proceed to infiltrate it. This was a mistake. It has now signed a contract to provide the orchid with all its nutritional requirements. Energy flows from diseased and decaying trees to Armillaria and on to Gastrodia. It is a parasite-by-proxy. No wonder no-one could ever cultivate it. They didn't realize that they needed the fungus to make it all work.

And yet, in an anthropomorphic way, it is as if the orchid has not forgotten its kinship with the other plants it indirectly feeds upon. It reduces the voraciousness of the fungus by the clever use of chemical signals. These fungal inhibitors protect uninfected trees in the forest surrounding the orchid from falling victim to the Armillaria's gluttony. It seems the orchid has planned for the wellfare of its future offspring as well.
Recently, five new orchid species were discovered in the Green Corridor, central Vietnam, by the WWF Vietnam programme and the Forest Protection Department of Thua Thien Hue Province. One of these is a brand new Gastrodia - pictured here - named Gastrodia theana after its discoverer, Vietnamese botanist Pham Van The. With warty pink petals that barely open to reveal a reddish lip lurking within, it really is a bizarre addition to the orchid family. It would be easy to believe that it was listening to every word we say. How soon before this one starts its own mythology? Perhaps it already has a MySpace page.

1 December 2007

Poll results

Welcome to the digital garden. Thank you to all who voted in the 80th post commemorative poll; the results are in. Taking third place with a mere 15% of the vote is the post about the spicy molecule zingerone. Although the post about collecting 1st edition books is still statistically the most popular with casual visitors to (E&E)², it only managed to attain second place, with 23% of the vote. The surprise winner, as voted for in the poll (and with a massive 31% of the vote), is the post entitled We're one, but we're not the same, dealing with the intimate subject of confession through song lyrics. Read it here. I must admit that this was an unexpected result. You guys seem to have very particular taste!

I hope you like the new version of (E&E)². A big thank you to the supertalented Dalyn from Bruiser Design for the wonderful new header image. Thank you all for reading and commenting. I wish to share much more of the inside of my skull with you. It's a jungle in here.

21 November 2007

The finished image

"So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." - Genesis 1:27

I've been idling over the topic of this week's post for quite a bit now. There's just no easy way to introduce the subject of genetic disease. Sensitive subject matter, whichever way you look at it. To scientists, biology is at its most fascinating and informative when it goes wrong. Often, genes are named after the condition that results when they malfunction. In the lab, determining the function of a specific gene is often done by disrupting the gene in a model organism and investigating any physical changes that result. What we don't realize is how often Nature does the same kind of experimenting.

What a miraculous thing every successful fertilization event is! A sperm and an ovum fuse, forming a zygote, the beginning of a new multicellular organism, with half of its genes derived from the paternal genome, and the other half from the maternal genome. The doubling of DNA and movement of chromosomes essential to this miracle form a major chapter in any biology textbook; the meiotic mantra of prophase-metaphase-anaphase-telophase is chanted in classrooms and lecture halls across the globe. Nature is not textbook perfect, however. Chromosomes get damaged, broken, left behind. They fuse into new entities, unsure of their alliances. The DNA sequences they harbour change over time, get deleted, repeated, inverted, mutated. Here's the rub: change is good. Mutation and change is what drives organisms to adapt to new environments and new pressures. It is what enables them to succeed in the future. Curiously, mutation works blind, unable to see what natural selection is requiring from it. Not all changes are equal; not all mutants fit the mould. Nearly a quarter of all human fertilization events will be aborted - often so rapidly that the woman doesn't even realize that she was pregnant. More than 50% of all embryos miscarried in the first trimester are found to have chromosomal abnormalities. These genetic changes are so severe that they prove lethal. In fact, we all carry a few genes where one of the two copies (alleles) is functionally incapacitated in some way and is compensated for by the healthy copy on the other chromosome - it is masked, recessive. Without that healthy copy, you would probably have suffered from some genetic disorder. More likely, you would never have been born.

Fibrodysplasia. For hundreds of years the medical records noted patients who slowly "turned to stone". This is a very rare condition, striking one out of every two million people. We now know this disease as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or FOP. It is autosomal dominant - you only need one copy of a mutant gene to be affected. Mutations in several different genes can lead to FOP, but the genes all share a common developmental pathway: that of embryonic bone morphogenesis. These genes are involved in bone formation in babies, but get switched off soon after. In FOP patients, one of the genes stays turned on into maturity, with grave consequences. Slowly, muscles and connective tissue are converted to bone. Slight injuries induce massive spurts of bone growth, making surgery to remove the lumps of bone impossible - it only exacerbates the situation. Sufferers might be unable to move their necks, open their jaws or lift their hands as more layers of ectopic bone are deposited, fusing their skeletons in place. Harry Eastlack, the most well-known FOP sufferer, donated his body to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, where his skeleton (above) dripping with bone like a cave drips with stalactites, can still be seen. He passed away in 1973, six days before his fortieth birthday.

Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome. Decades ago, boys with this disease were often misdiagnosed as having cerebral palsy. They writhe and twist and are mildy retarded. But they also suffer from horrifying, uncontrollable urges to self-mutilate. Sufferers will bang their heads against the wall, or bite themselves. Many need to be strapped in and restrained to prevent them from chewing off their own fingers and lips, or gouging at their own eyes, screaming in pain and terror as they do so. Care-givers are also not spared, and may be sworn at or punched, often while the patient apologizes profusely for their compulsion. This terrible disease is caused by mutations in the gene that codes for the HPRT enzyme, involved in the metabolism of nitrogenous molecules called purines. When this enzyme malfunctions, there is a build-up of uric acid, which leads to gout and kidney problems and is also responsible for the changes in neurological development. Most sufferers die of kidney failure early in life. This is a recessive disease, meaning that a healthy copy of the gene will compensate for a faulty one, and the person will not be afflicted but merely a carrier. Unfortunately, the gene resides on the X chromosome. So whereas girls inherit an X from their mother and an X from their father, boys inherit an X from their mother and a Y from their father. Men make do with a single X chromosome. If it happens to contain the faulty HPRT1 gene, they will develop Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Carrier mothers therefore have a 50% chance of transmitting the gene to their sons. Fortunately, this disease is also very rare, and typically affects only 1 out of every 380 000 people worldwide.

Fatal Familial Insomnia. We've all heard of prions, those infectious proteins hiding in our hamburgers, lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim to consume them and become another sporadic case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Prions are differently folded variants of normal proteins essential to brain function. When a prion protein comes into contact with a normal protein of the same kind, it can change the shape of that protein into the prion fold. The new prion is like a zombie victim; once bitten, it too becomes a zombie and can turn others into zombies with its lethal bite. Prion proteins form plaques of long fibres inside neurons, damaging their delicate structure and disrupting their function. Most prion diseases take the form of transmissable spongiform encephalopathies - the prion proteins are tranferred through transfusions, transplants, or consuming tainted meat. In the rare case of fatal familial insomnia, the disease is most definitely genetic: if one parent had it, then each child has a 50% chance of developing it as well. The age of onset varies from 20 to 60, so it usually strikes when patients have already had children. The symptoms of FFI are unpleasant, because it is literally a fatal case of insomnia. People with FFI find themselves terminally unable to fall asleep, inhabiting a debilitating world somewhere between slumber and wakefulness. Drastic weight loss occurs, together with decreases in muscle control. No longer able to speak or walk, they are bedridden (a cruel twist) with nothing to do but stare at the walls. Curiously, FFI does not impair cognition, or cause dementia: up to the very end, before the bliss of coma and death, sufferers are completely aware of what is happening to them. It has so far only been identified in about 40 families, and members can be screened for the mutant gene that causes the protein to assume the malignant fold. Researchers hope that the study of FFI might lead to a cure for other prion diseases like CJD, and protein misfolding diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.

Trimethylaminuria. TMAU, a metabolic disorder that sounds hilarious, yet is anything but funny for those who suffer from it. For them it is a source of much embarrassment. Also known as fish odour syndrome, this disease is again caused by a malfunctioning gene. The gene, FMO3, is located on the long arm of chromosome 1, and encodes an enzyme responsible for breaking down trimethylamine, a molecule formed from nitrogen-rich food by beneficial intestinal bacteria. The disorder is recessive, so both copies of the gene need to be malfunctioning for the disorder to manifest itself. Because trimethylamine is no longer broken down, it builds up in the body. The molecule, which has a fishy, ammonia-like smell, is released in the person's urine, sweat, and breath. No matter how often they wash, the smell is never gone for long. This disorder can be very disrupting. People who suffer from it often shy away from social interaction by isolating themselves, and sometimes struggle with feelings of guilt or depression. Although there is no cure, avoiding certain foods high in nitrogen seems to help, as do daily doses of charcoal to soak up the smelly compounds.

Huntington's Disease. On the short arm of chromosome 4 lies a gene encoding a protein essential to the maintenance of neurons, called huntingtin. The gene sequence specifies the exact order of amino acids that need to be linked together to form the functional protein. Part of this sequence is a stretch of repeats of the same amino acid, glutamine, over and over again. The exact length of this patch of glutamine repeats varies from person to person. Healthy people can have anything from 9 to 35 such glutamines linked end-to-end in this part of the protein. In people with Huntington's disease, or HD, this repeat sequence has been vastly extended, sometimes to more than a hundred repeats. Somewhere along the line, the sophisticated cellular machinery that reads and copies the genetic code had lost its place in all the repeats, reread the code again and created extra copies of those requests for glutamine in the gene sequence; HD is a codon reiteration disorder. The mutant form of huntintin no longer functions normally, and is also not broken down like it should be. Neurons start to die off. Interestingly, the longer the repeats in the mutant huntingtin are, the earlier the patient's symptoms start. HD is typically a progressive decline, with chorea and athetosis generally being the first physical symptoms. Chorea is characterized by abnormal involuntary jerking movements, while athetosis is a continuous writhing movement of the hands and feet. These irregularities in coordination increase as the disease progresses. In the later stages, speaking and swallowing are impaired. The most frightening aspects of HD are those that involve the mind itself - patients often become anxious or depressed, sometimes aggressive or compulsive. They lose the capacity for abstract thinking, for planning ahead or choosing appropriate actions. This deterioration is particularly traumatizing for children who often end up taking care of their ailing parents, loved ones who have become strangers to them. HD is an autosomal dominant disease - if you have the mutant gene, you will eventually develop the disease. Because it only manifests later in life (the average age when symptoms start is 40) HD is often only diagnosed when patients already have children. This means that the mutation gets passed on to the next generation 50% of the time. There is a very efficient DNA test available to detect the presence of the gene. However, many children of HD sufferers choose to rather not know their own fate. At the start of the 21st century, Huntington's disease is still a terminal illness with no cure. If you had a 50% chance of inheriting it, would you want to know for sure?

Let us not view this as a morose post, a mere list of genetic disease, a list of things that can go wrong. Rather, it is intended to be a celebration of the miracle of multicellular life and of how precious a healthy genome truly is. It is a salute to those brave people who live with genetic disorders; they have been of immeasurable help in the study of genes and their functions. They represent the reluctant pioneers of our collective genome, those who are sacrificing themselves in testing the limits of human evolution. Change is good.

"The living form defies evolution at its peril; if it does not adapt, it will be broken. The idea of completed man is the supreme vanity: the finished image is a sacrilegious myth." - John Wyndham, The Chrysalids, 1955

14 November 2007

The Siren song of the cloud forest

In 2002, strange photographs were being circulated via e-mail and doing the rounds on online orchid forums. As always, the photographs were tantalizingly unfocused and indistinct. What they seemed to depict was a New World slipper orchid of some kind, a Phragmipedium. This seemed like a new species, and a brightly coloured one, at that. The last time a really unusual new orchid was discovered was in the early '80s, when the fiery Phragmipedium besseae was spotted from a helicopter, growing on sheer cliffs on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Everyone likes a good mystery, and the online chat room is the premier rumour mill of the 21st century. This new thing intrigued everyone in the orchid world, but intrigue goes deeper than casual fascination for those truly obsessed with these horticultural harlots. No-one could have predicted the magnitude of the mania that was about to strike the orchid community, or how far-reaching the effects of this most severe outbreak of orchid fever would be.
In May of 2002, Michael Kovach from Goldvein, Virginia, was travelling around the cloud forests of Peru on an orchid hunting expedition. On the afternoon of 26 May, he came to the truck stop of El Progresso. In the parking lot, some local farmers were selling orchids. This is a common sight in this part of the world, and the orchids are usually collected from the wild as people clear new patches of forest in order to plant their crops. After Kovach expressed interest in the wares peddled by a brother and sister, the girl wanted to show him something special, and hurried off. She promptly returned with three potted plants with obscenely large, royal purple blossoms. Kovach knew he'd never seen anything like these before. Other Amazonian slipper orchids were half the size and in drab shades of green. He bought them all, for $3.60 a piece. This was it, his chance for orchid fame. Little did he know that his small act of exploitation by the side of the road in rural Peru would set in motion a series of events that would end up with his name living on in infamy instead.

Kovach had to get the plant scientifically described if it were to carry his name. The premier US institution for orchid taxonomy, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, would be his best bet. Imagine the astonished expressions of the esteemed plant taxonomists at Selby on that day when Kovach walked in with this new slipper orchid. It signified the most important discovery the orchid world had seen in over a century. The race was on: word was received that orchid expert Eric Christenson was preparing a description of a fabulous new Phragmipedium that would change slipper orchid breeding forever. Dr. Eric Christenson worked from photographs sent by Peruvian orchid enthusiasts, and with the support of the Peruvian government. He would name the new species Phragmipedium peruvianum. In order for the name Phragmipedium kovachii to be accepted by the scientific community, the Selby description had to be submitted first: the taxonomists and botanical illustrators were determined to work overtime. Selby ended up beating Christenson to print by five days. Kovach's place in history was secure. At the same time, stories began to appear in orchid forums that specimens of the new orchid were already fetching prices as high as $10 000 on the black market...

Here's the curious thing: due to CITES restrictions which control the trade in endangered species, slipper orchids cannot legally cross borders, for whatever reason. Hybrids yes, nursery-raised plants certainly, but not jungle-collected specimens. Therefore, the Marie Selby Botanical Garden was guilty of orchid smuggling, its reputation forever tainted. Oops. And the name P. kovachii can't even be retracted so that the whole sorry mess will go away, as it was indeed published first. The rules need to apply to everyone. This has happened before: even if we all like the name Brontosaurus so much more, the name Apatosaurus was assigned first, so we'll have to live with it. Whenever you hear of a botanical institution describing a new species from another country, you have to wonder how they managed to do it; even if it were tantamount to smuggling, surely the rules don't apply when it's for science? As Dr. Christenson so eloquently put it, "Anyone with half a brain cell doesn't go near them. They're the pandas of the orchid world... When somebody shows up with an orchid like that, you either quietly tell them to go away or you call the cops."

There's also the part of the story concerning the whereabouts of that specific Selby orchid after it was described. Who got to take it home when they were done? Let's just say there were police raids on several greenhouses that year. Redundancies. Lawsuits. In-fighting. Mud-slinging. The withdrawal of research grants. Thrilling fodder for a Grisham novel, no doubt. Nobody could claim orchids were boring after that. Michael Kovach least of all: he just barely escaped doing time. Others weren't as lucky. "Lead us not into temptation..."

In Peru, the government started posting fliers at every airport warning people against trying to smuggle the slipper orchid out of the country. Unfortunately, the brand new Phragmipedium was already in deep trouble. The slippery hillsides where Kovach's original plants came from were bare. The orchid was lost, nowhere to be found. Local people desperate for some income had helped unscrupulous smugglers in completely stripping the site of its thousands of P. kovachii plants. A second site was subsequently discovered and also collected out. Illegally collected orchids were now selling for $1000 each in parts of Europe. The outlook seemed bleak. Months went by, and scientists started speculating that P. kovachii could already be extinct in the wild, even with hardcore CITES regulation and the fear of spending eternity in a Peruvian prison as deterrents. Finally, a small colony of the regal orchid was discovered on a virtually inaccessible cliff in a remote part of the sub-Andean basin. The unfriendly terrain would be its protection. Getting to the site required making what Harold Koopowitz, the editor of Orchid Digest, calls "the hike from hell".

The true salvation of any species at risk from overcollecting lies in taking pressure off its natural populations by introducing it into cultvation. In a sensible move, the Peruvian government granted Alfredo Manrique of Centro de Jardinería Manrique in Lima permission to collect five - and only five - plants for preservation through propagation. With expert help from some of the world's best specialists in orchid cultivation and tissue culture, this most beautiful of New World slippers will soon be available to everyone at an affordable price. Best of all, the wild orchids will remain queens of the cloud forest, safe for the moment. In the November 2007 issue of Orchids magazine, the American Orchid Society published vanity shots of the first generation of P. kovachii hybrids, including Phragmipedium Haley Decker, pictured here. Orchid breeding is never going to be the same again.

All photographs from Centro de Jardinería Manrique, unless otherwise indicated.

5 November 2007

Sexual frustration of the worst kind

The first reports always come from farms and small towns. Rural areas. Strange sounds in the forest at night. People call them cryptids. These creatures, presumed extinct, cast a delicious spell: we want to believe that they are out there, holding out against the odds. Survivors, after all. A flash of white on a black wing in an Arkansas swamp, and we desperately cling to the hope that the ivory-billed woodpecker has survived, that it is alive and well and breeding. Each frame of footage is cherished as grainy evidence that the thylacine still stalks the Eucalyptus forests of Australia. We want these creatures to have survived the ravages of hunting and habitat destruction. We are to blame for their disappearance. We need to ease our guilt, you see. Our desire to resurrect these species is so overwhelming that we end up ignoring all evidence to the contrary. We will not discover a live moa in a hidden valley in New Zealand. No amount of weeping will cause the cry violet to blossom in Bourgogne again. They are precious jewels lost down the drainpipe and no hook will ever be long enough to retrieve them.

Often we concentrate so much on what we have lost, that we don't notice the things we are about to lose, the findings on the other bracelets coming undone as we vainly poke around in the dark, chasing shadows in the plumbing. A small amount of organisms have indeed come back from the dead, as it were. These so-called Lazarus species, such as the painted frog and the Madagascar serpent-eagle, were reported as extinct for several years, until small populations are rediscovered. These are rare occurences, and dangerous ones for ecology in the end; they give us hope, which is so seldom of any practical use.

What a pitiful, sorrowful thing the very last wild thylacine must have been. All alone, without a mate. A population of top-end predators reduced to a single individual. The last thylacine would not even have been aware of it, of course, but it was doomed long ago. As soon as the number of individuals in a population drops below a certain threshold, the whole species collapses. Even though there are still individuals alive, the genetic diversity needed to sustain their next generation is already lost. You cannot fight natural selection with just a handful of alleles - you need the full arsenal. Imagine that last thylacine, gazing out over its dry scrubland habitat. A dead species walking. Functionally extinct.

The wonderful seaside city of Durban, South Africa, has an incredible botanic garden with a rich history. Planted in Victorian times, its mature tropical trees are a magnificent site to behold. On weekends, crowds of people enjoy a sunny afternoon picnic on its lawns. Its herbarium has collected and catalogued some of the most precious specimens of plants from all over the world and specifically the ravines and coastal forests of southern Africa. Music events, art installations and amateur astronomy nights bring people from all walks of life, not just plant lovers. Chiefly, it is indeed a plant lover's paradise: a whole avenue of Eucalyptus deglupta, the famous rainbow gum, leads to a carefully maintained Japanese garden. Tropical fruit trees grow outside, festooned with bromeliads and orchids, without the need of pampering under glass: jackfruit, cocoa, coffee, mangoes, they're all here. Ponds of waterlilies, formal rose gardens and arches dripping with purple Wisteria provide bridal couples and their photographers with many opportunities for gorgeous scenery. A Victorian orchid house gushes with colourful, heady blooms, a firm favourite with any visitor. And in the middle of it all stands a lonely looking Wood's cycad, Encephalartos woodii.

I've never been a big fan of cycads. They're big and spikey, grow exceedingly slowly, and produce no flowers. Still, the madness of cycad collectors probably exceeds that of the orchid folk. No other kind of rare plant has been as vehemently collected, illegally smuggled or heavily policed. In 1895, John Medley Wood came across a large cycad with four stems at the edge of the coastal forest of Ngoye in eastern South Africa. Luckily for the cycad, John had been curator of the Durban Botanic Gardens since 1882. In 1903, Wood sent James Wiley to collect some of the offsets growing at the base of the plant. In 1907, two of the larger trunks were collected and planted at the Botanic Gardens in Durban. However, Wood wasn't the only person interested in this cycad, apparently. By 1912, there was only a single trunk left. It is known that the indigenous people of the area sometimes use the starchy trunks as a food source, but it is doubtful that they were to blame. The plant seemed mutilated, diseased. In 1916, The Forestry Department sent this ailing trunk to the Government botanist in Pretoria. It died in 1964. All expeditions to find other specimens of Wood's cycad have returned empty-handed. It is very likely that the original plant collected one hundred years ago was the last of its kind.

Fortunately, the specimens growing in the Durban Botanic Garden thrived. Unfortunately, you need a mommy and a daddy cycad to make a baby cycad. The single specimen on the planet was a male, you see, and without a female Encephalartos woodii, no viable seed can ever be made. And yet, there are about 500 individual plants in the world now, in botanic gardens such as Kew and Kirstenbosch, and in private collections. How was this miracle accomplished? The plant regularly produces offsets at its base - all male, all genetically identical. Clones, with about as much chance of surviving in the wild as the original plant did. Functionally extinct. There has been much research and debate about using biotechnology to save Wood's cycad. It might be possible to induce one of the clones to change sex and become a female, whether chemically or using a genetic engineering approach. But even if this feat of gender reassignment surgery were possible, the genetic pool is still severely limited. Encephalartos woodii will remain in cultivation, of that there is no doubt. But genetically crippled, it could never survive in the wild.

The photograph above is of me hugging the trunk of the gigantic original cycad, first collected in 1907, still growing happily in the Durban Botanic Garden. A palaeontological relic, its chromosomes at a loss for something to do. A proud plant, but doomed like the thylacine. Its salvation through cultivation is a hollow victory. Lazarus was raised from the dead, only to die a second death. I recalled a lecture in population genetics, where the secrets of the gene were shared with me in darkened halls: "The only thing worse than somatic death, the death of the body, is genetic death, the failure to reproduce". I closed my eyes and grasped the trunk, cool and solid beneath my fingers.

24 October 2007

80th post commemorative poll

Originally started as a means for me to share my small collection of orchids with the world through a series of In The Greenhouse posts (remember those, anyone?) this blog has evolved into the garden of earthly delights you see today. Eclectic Epiphytes and Electrophoretic Epigrams has amassed 80 posts since it started two years ago in October of 2005. Can you believe it? I feel it's pretty impressive, given that I'm not the most prolific of bloggers. In the span of those two years I've tried to provide some insight into the things inside my head. In order to celebrate this auspicious occasion, I'd like you to participate in a poll to select the best post from the (E&E)² Herbarium! Yes, folks, your vote counts!

I have selected ten of my personal favourite posts from over the years:

  • the post singing the praises of my favourite molecule
  • the post unconvering the seedy underbelly of orchid shows
  • the post about rare records
  • the post where I revealed personal stuff... kind-of
  • the post listing cool things to do with biotechnology
  • the post about my ultimate fanboy experience
  • the post about the dangers of working in a lab
  • the post explaining the intricacies of collecting first edition books
  • the post with the mystery squid
  • the post about my whirlwind trip to Cape Town

That's the list. Use the links to delve into the archive. Use the polling box in the sidebar to cast your vote. You can only vote once, and the poll closes at the end of November 2007. I hope you've had as much fun reading my inane ramblings as I've had writing them. Here's to the next two years of digital gardening!

20 October 2007

A secret dream of three islands

As the first snow of the season comes drifting down from a sky grey as concrete, my thoughts turn to the inviting islands of the tropics. Scattered between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are some of the most fascinating and mysterious places on the planet. Isolation in time and space has caused the rapid radial evolution of unique and diverse forms of island life, to the benefit of documentary filmmakers the world over. Charismatic presenters with well-funded television crews have brought the volcanic craters of the Galápagos Archipelago with its giant tortoises and the enigmatic orangutans of steamy Borneo into our homes. The existence of the idiosyncratic lakes of Palau was arcane knowledge once, their masses of harmless jellyfish that nourish photosynthetic bacterial gardens by following the path of the sun by day, and descending into the nutrient rich depths at night, being only of interest to science. These days, organized dives at Jellyfish Lake are big business. In the 21st century, we have become complacent. Once an island has featured on a season of Survivor, the mystique is gone. The Philippines, The Azores, The Comoros, Zanzibar, Tasmania, Fiji, Malabo, The Island of Hispaniola, all of these still hold great treasures to discover: if you care to look past the trappings of tourism, past the generic resorts, the casinos and beach parties, this is where you will find Beauty.

The warm haze of a daydream sets off neuronal synapses. Pressure drops. Temperature rises. I find myself on three of my favourite islands. Look.

Madagascar. The world's fourth largest island; its vastness is not to be underestimated. Madagascar is so diverse, so strange, the archetype of curious islands, really. Apart from its bounty of lemurs, chameleons and rare bird species, it is also a centre of endemism of the vegetable kind. Weird vegetables, at that. The Avenue of the Baobabs at sunset is a heart-stopping sight. Smooth glowing trunks standing tall and fat and healthy against the orange sky. Please ignore the rotting stumps of fallen giants, cut down for some counterintuitive, senseless reason. Madagascar is home to seven species of this special tree, six of which are found nowhere else. Waxy white Angraecum orchids festoon its forests and jagged limestone outcrops. The arid south is the location of a unique spiny thicket, pictured here. Baobabs are not the only succulents that give the impression that they were planted upside down. Swollen caudiciform shrubs abound in the Ifaty Spiny Forest, storing moisture during the long wait for monsoon rain. Didiearas thrust their thorny branches into the hot sky, looking like burnt ghosts, inspiring legends, demanding worship. However, the green cathedrals of Madagascar are slowly slipping away from us. These wonderful riches are being destroyed by mining, erosion, through agriculture, deforestation and apathy.

New Caledonia. South of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean lies the French territory of Nouvelle-Calédonie. It is small in comparison to the mighty Madagascar, but is just as bountiful and diverse. And just as threatened. The kagu, a unique blue ground-living bird, has become the icon of New Caledonia nature conservation. At first glance New Caledonia is anything but exceptional among tropical islands. It straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, and like so many South Seas islands receives storms brought by the trade winds. It is surrounded by azure shallows perfect for reef diving with dugongs. It also has some old growth pine forests. Wait - pine forests? Aren't those particular to colder climes? Indeed. But you see: New Caledonia is our last precious example of the magnificent forests that must have covered much of the continent of Antarctica millions of years ago. It's hard to imagine that Antarctica was ever green, but the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana certainly was. As it broke apart and Africa and Australia drifted west and east, New Caledonia was sent out into the South Pacific, carrying its coniferous gift. The gymnosperms of New Caledonia are an exclusive club - all 43 species are endemic, occuring only there - and quite a mixed bunch. There are 18 kinds of Podocarpus, 6 cypress species, a yew and nearly half of the world's araucarias, those Jurassic evergreens sometimes referred to as 'monkey-puzzle' trees. Some of these trees survive in such small numbers and are so sensitive to climate change that their continued survival seems jeopardized. Will we go on losing things we never even knew we had? The French refer to one of the smaller islands in the New Caledonia archipelago as 'l'île la plus proche du paradis', which means 'the closest island to paradise'. Its name is the Isle of Pines.

Socotra. Look at a map of Africa. Scrutinize the area known as the Horn of Africa, that landmass jutting into the Indian Ocean just south of the Arabian Peninsula. See the little island there, as if the tip of the Horn had broken off? You've located Socotra, Yemen's largest island. And bizarre it is, too. Its 40 000 inhabitants speak Socotri, supposedly derived from the language spoken by the Queen of Sheba. It can be classified as a tropical desert, with more than 300 plant species being endemic. Of these, nine whole genera of plants are found there and nowhere else. That's an amazing amount of biodiversity. This is what evolution does when an island is separated from the mainland for 20 million years. Socotra has forests of Boswellia, a small tree that produces the aromatic resin known as frankincense. Similar to the dry forests of Madagascar, the unforgiving climate compels many plants to conserve moisture. Swollen stems sprout from the gritty soil, their contorted branches remaining leafless for much of the year. A lunar forest. One of these caudiciforms is Dendrosicyos socotrana, the only member of the Cucurbitaceae (which includes squash, melons, pumpkins and cucumbers) to have graduated from that lowly life into the grand stature of a tree. It is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Probably the most emblematic of Socotran botanical curiosities is the Dragon's Blood tree, Dracaena cinnabari, pictured here. This is the same genus as the familiar office plant fodder and little green pieces of so-called 'lucky bamboo' sold in florists. It is definitely not a true bamboo (which is a member of the vast family of grasses), and is more closely related to the agaves of the New World. When wounded, the trunk of this remarkable plant weeps a bright red sap, the mythical 'dragon's blood'. Highly prized in the ancient world, it was used as a panacea to cure almost everything, from fever to skin disorders and stomach ailments. The skillful Italian violinmakers of the 18th century used it as a source of dark red varnish for the most exceptional of their instruments. Although protected by CITES, many of Socotra's interesting and useful plants are under threat from overgrazing and human development. Will this distruction be the theme that ties all the places of secret beauty together? When will we realize that it is the Beauty of nature that has always been the secret inspiration behind all of our endeavours, our technology, our poetry?
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
- e.e. cummings

15 October 2007

Nature's inexorable imperative

It encompasses that part of the ocean from 1000 to 4000 meters below the surface. All sunlight is filtered out; temperatures average a cool 4°C. To this day, the bathypelagic zone remains largely unexplored. This makes sense, right? It is virtually uninhabited and therefore not of interest. Most ocean science focuses on the interesting life forms frothing around coral reefs in the shallows, or the phosphorescent, fanged creatures found all the way down in the abyssopelagic and at the very bottom, the hadopelagic zone, where tube worms and blind fish use chemicals spewing from thermal vents for energy, instead of sunlight like the rest of us. This makes sense, right? There's just nothing happening in the bathypelagic. Even though it represents about 90% of the planet's biosphere, it's just boring open ocean, right? A wet desert. Wrong. Quite, quite wrong.

The bathypelagic represents an unusual kind of habitat - one devoid of surfaces. At certain places, where the continental shelf disappears, it has no defined ceiling, and no defined floor. Just miles of water above, with the faint promise of heat and light, and miles of water below, dark as Hades. In this kind of environment, natural selection employs alternative criteria. Evolution is stretched to its limits, sometimes quite literally. In September of 1988, off the coast of Brazil in the Western Atlantic, the French manned submersible Nautile observed something unknown to science. It was clear that it was a squid. But what kind of squid? It was not the famous vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which grows to about 30 cm. This thing was much larger. Not as large as the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, or the giant squid, Arciteuthis rex, which can both fetch 14 m with outstretched tentacles. No, this was something else. Estimated at 7 m in length, this creature was otherworldly, serene, and graceful. A beautiful alien. Four years passed before the crew of the Nautile could obtain decent footage of a similar squid, this time in the Eastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa. The picture above is a screen shot from their 1992 footage. I can't help but be reminded of the tripods in The War Of The Worlds by HG Wells.

By 2001, research teams have come across these mysterious squid in the bathypelagic zone eight times. Some of the best footage was captured using ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), such as Alvin. The image at left was captured in May of 2001 by the Tiburon, an ROV operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, north of O'ahu Hawaii in the Central Pacific. (For a video clip of the squid swimming, go here. It is beautiful and bizarre.) Usually, squid have two long tentacles for catching prey, and eight shorter arms arranged around the mouthparts. However, the arms and tentacles of these macabre squid are indistinguishable. The only other known cephalopods with a similar arrangement of ten appendages are the belemnites, creatures that went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago. This squid holds its crown of arms perpendicular to its body, with the long filamentous distal portions hanging down from what - for want of a better word - look like elbows. The arms of these animals are by far the longest of any squid in comparison to the length of its body. Although no physical specimens have yet been collected, these mystery squid appear to be the adult forms of the Magnapinna, or bigfin squid, a genus described from immature specimens.

A large predator from the largest environment on Earth, and yet undiscovered for all these years. We dream of other planets, and yet the true wonder is to be found on our own. This is why I study biology. I want to be kept in awe. What other things, exquisite and strange, are lurking in the darkest waters of the ocean?

"Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative." -HG Wells

5 October 2007

Spectres of the swamp

Just in time for Halloween, Eclectic Epiphytes presents a post on swamp ghosts. The inspiration for this post is a fascinating and very well-written article by John Darnton, published in the October 2007 issue of the Smithsonian magazine. Read the full article here.

Papua New Guinea is a true lost world. Virtually unexplored even into the 21st century, its hot lowlands hum with lush jungle and its mountains are covered with moist cloud forest where birds of paradise flit between the shadows. Papua New Guinea is the kind of place that makes any orchid lover's heart beat that much faster. Certain areas are so remote that several new species of orchids can still be collected there on a single field trip. It has the largest concentration of unique species of Dendrobium orchid anywhere in the world, from minute gems that can only be appreciated through a magnifying glass, to reedy giants several metres tall. The people of Papua New Guinea speak over 800 different languages, making it the linguistically most diverse country in the world. Many still live in the tribal way, close to nature and the ancestors. Until recently, shells and dog teeth were legal currency. Until recently, the phrase having a friend for dinner had an entirely different meaning. And until recently, the Agaiambo swamp held a ghostly secret...

On the 23rd of February 1942, in the midst of World War II, an American Boeing B-17 on a bombing mission against the Japanese made a perfect emergency landing in the middle of an ocean of kunai grass swampland. Kunai grass (Imperata cylindrica) bears sharp needles of calcium oxalate crystal on the edges of every leaf blade and is unusual for being flammable even while green. Cut-up and delirious with malaria, the airmen finally arrived at Port Moresby after an arduous thirty-six day trek. However, the remarkable part of the story is not the journey of the airmen, but the plane they left behind in the swamp. Not only was it left behind, but it was remarkably well preserved, even after decades of lying in eight feet of water under boiling tropical skies. It was only rediscovered in 1972 during an RAAF helicopter exercise, thirty years after the crash. Macabre. Christened the Swamp Ghost, several explorers and historians have become so infatuated with the derelict that regular fly-overs and hiking expeditions to the site of the wreck have been organized. There's even a website dedicated to its legacy. One explorer's obsession with the Swamp Ghost finally got the better of him, however. By May of 2006 Alfred Hagen, an aviator from Bucks County Pennsylvania, had paid $100,000 for an export permit from New Guinea's National Museum and Art Gallery and salvaged the plane from its swampy grave of sixty years. Apparently, it would make a great display in some Aeronautical Museum...

There is one other ghost of the swamps that I'd like to share with you. In the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve in the Florida Everglades, hidden amongst the bald cypress trees, protected by alligators and CITES legislature, lives a ghost with three names. Sometimes known as Dendrophylax lindenii, sometimes as Polyrrhiza lindenii, or sometimes as Polyradicion lindenii, it is commonly referred to as the ghost orchid. This phantom flower is a rare apparition indeed. It is an epiphyte like most tropical orchids, preferring to grow on other plants rather than skulk about in the shadows. But what distinguishes it from our normal concept of what an orchid looks like is the fact that it does not have any leaves. Whatsoever. The plant consists solely of a network of green roots which have taken over the task of photosynthesis. Glistening white flowers, strangely frog-like in appearance, are produced in late summer to tempt the giant sphinx moth. This is the only insect with a proboscis of sufficient length to get to the bottom of the orchid's nectar-filled spur. This summer, a gigantic specimen of the orchid with a huge mass of tanlged roots was discovered 45 feet up a bald cypress tree in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The orchid is estimated to be about 50 years old. Ghost orchids often manage to produce three or more flowers during a summer flowering season. Since its accidental discovery on the 7th of July (by hikers searching for an owl, no less) this specific plant has produced a record 20 blossoms in two flushes of ten flowers lasting up to four weeks at a time. Such generous beauty makes the plant particulary vulnerable. The ghost orchid is in danger of disappearing altogether, like that WWII plane, due to the covetous intentions of over-zealous collectors. If you've read a book called The Orchid Thief, or seen a movie called Adaptation, then you'll know all about it. Many people have gone down the road to madness after meeting a ghost in the swamp...

Credit to NC Orchid for the beautiful photograph of Polyrrhiza lindenii. Visit his Flickr page for more amazing pictures.

28 September 2007

A kingdom behind it all

Dave Gahan - Kingdom [CDMute393] Released 08 October 2007 on Mute Records.

A brand-new single from the frontman of Depeche Mode. I cannot wait.

27 September 2007

Frivolous Freelance Friday Fritillaries

The world revolves slowly. One continous day and one continuous night are perpetually chasing one another across the surface of the planet, crossing an imaginary line drawn through the ocean that causes human beings to flip the pages of their calendars and diaries. I have been tagged by karen little, several time zones removed from me now, but always close, somehow. Tagging is fun and infuriating at the same time. I am one of those people who openly define themselves by what they do, and only privately by what they are. The Orchidhunter is just one, eclectic-electronic version of me. But let's see what I can come up with...

The rules:
  1. Post these rules before you give your facts.
  2. List 8 random facts about yourself.
  3. At the end of your post, choose (tag) 8 people and list their names, linking to them.
  4. Leave a comment on their blog, letting them know they've been tagged.

The randomness:

1. I'm a member of the American Orchid Society.

2. I have had the same pencil tin since starting my undergraduate degree. It's a beaten up metal tin with the words "2000 - the millennium year and beyond" still just barely visible on the top. Apart from the traditional collection of stationery, this tin has always been home to the following: two marbles; a nut with no bolt; a small ball-bearing; two bright red beans from the common coral tree Erythrina lysistemon; five bright red beans from the broad-leaved coral tree Erythrina latissima; three speckled calypso beans; a small plastic lizard from a surprise egg, given to me by my sister's youngest daughter; a green foil smiley face - a table decoration from some long-forgotten party; two red nerite shells I collected on the beach at Jeffrey's Bay in 1993; and tablets of paracetamol.

3. My living room is decorated with photographic prints of sea nettles, jellyfish in the genus Chrysaora. These beautiful organisms are very amenable to aquaculture and are housed in specialized aquariums around the world. I'd love to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where they have a splendid display called 'Jellies: Living Art' combining jelly tanks with the organic glass masterpieces of Dale Chihuly.

4. Certain smells that seem to delight other people leave me with nothing but a headache. I cannot stand the smell of jasmine. Discovering that the smell of jasmine actually has 'a definite faecal undertone' in Sharman Apt Russell's immensely readable Anatomy of a Rose, just confirmed what my olfactory nerves had suspected all along. I also cannot stand scented soaps, incense, scented candles, or the smell of most household cleaning agents. All those dreadfully synthetic pink smells. Give me the good old chemical smell of plain bleach anyday. Why must your home smell like cinnamon-pumpkins for Thanksgiving? Why can't it just have the neutral smell of air? You know: 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 1% argon, 1% carbon dioxide, the name you know and trust? Are you vainly trying to mask the foetid odour of a house inhabited by the filthy mammal you really are? What are you trying to hide? The sense of smell is such an intensely personal thing, intimately tied to the cerebral process of memory. Why waste it on an artificial, so-called 'lily-of-the-valley' tea candle? It's just offensive.

5. Unlike other people, I find it impossible to sing in the shower. The acoustics are always bad. And how do you sing without swallowing water?

6. I study the molecular and genetic interactions between plants and aphids. As far as bizarre goes, few things can beat an aphid. Imagine an insect that is always female, gives birth to live nymphs, is born pregnant, feeds exclusively on plant sap which is so poor in nutrients that the aphid has to secrete most of what it ingests as sticky honeydew out its arse, is actively farmed by ants because of its nectar-like poo, drinks its liquid lunch through a set of mouth parts 0.5µm in diameter, and causes billions of dollars worth of damage to crops annually. This year, I hope to do some EPG (electronic penetration graph) studies, which are basically the aphid version of an electroencaphalogram: you attach an electrode to the aphid with metallic glue and proceed to monitor its feeding behaviour through alterations in electric current. I'm hoping to combine this with virus-induced gene silencing of certain candidate genes in the plant, in order to tease out what actually makes some plants resistant to aphid attack. Now, if it all just works out...

7. I love going to music concerts, but have chalked up way too few so far. Hopefully living in Colorado will soon change this for the better. I pine for those live concerts I've missed, never to return again: Talking Heads. Jimi Hendrix. The Smiths. Anita O'Day. Before I die, I'd love to see the Scissor Sisters live. Or Goldfrapp. Massive Attack. The Knife. Fischerspooner. Ladytron. The list goes on. The only thing that could ever beat the best live show I ever attended, though, would be another Depeche Mode concert. Such great memories. My sister took me to my first big stadium concert - Gloria Estefan live at Loftus - so many years ago. Although the only song I was actually familiar with was Conga, the whole experience of being part of the crowd, experiencing the dynamic artistry on the stage, instilled in me an instant addiction. Live concerts for the hell of it are sometimes fun: I was the only person in the crowd at a Counting Crows concert in Johannesburg who had not heard Mr. Jones before they actually played it onstage. I'm still not a fan, truth be told. But to attend a concert as a fan, with like-minded friends, is one of life's biggest pleasures. Encore!

8. People are confused by the name of this blog. It's long and no-one knows what it means, apparently. However, it captures the reasons why I blog perfectly. There are several meanings here, all intertwined like the roots of orchids growing in the cloud forest. Orchids are epiphytes. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants. Epiphytes are not parasites, they simply use the bigger plants as perches, as support, as a means to get closer to the light and the air. I love orchids and all things horticultural and botanical. This blog hopes to provide support for the many eclectic and diverse things I'm passionate about, bringing them out of the dark corners of my brain and into the light of the blogosphere. The blog is a platform for my opinions, my creative outlet. I post short pieces I'd like to believe are at times witty or humorous, not exactly epigrams of course, but you get the idea. I only write about things I'm interested in or passionate about. Things that move me. Electrophoresis is the movement of charged molecules - such as DNA - in the presence of an electric field, thereby separating them and revealing their true nature. Do you understand now? Eclectic Epiphytes and Electrophoretic Epigrams is an ever-evolving collection of posts about the thrill of existing in the 21st century. The things that have grown on me. The things that move me.

That's it, I suppose. Now to tag some other victims, erm... bloggers. I'm only tagging four of you though (to leave more people to tag later on, see?). Let's go with Adam, who I think is always up for the job; Mike, who is bound to make it revealing; Arcadia, who is sure to make it beautiful; and Twanji, who actually reveals less of himself than I do.

13 September 2007

A certain ambivalence

You cannot integrate into a new culture in merely a month. My new environment is different and strange. You grow up watching American movies and cinema, but until you've been to the country yourself, you really have only a vague concept of what it's like. To be honest, I still feel like a tourist: a visitor to the zoo, looking in, not part of the multicultural tapestry that is the US of A.*

Since I love making lists, and my last proper list on this blog was posted in May, I thought it would be diverting to list some of my recent discoveries in the form of a comparative analysis with my home country. But instead of slagging off one country as these lists usually go, I'll focus on the good things about both the USA and the RSA. I cannot say that it's worse or better here. What i can say is that it's definitely different.

  • Technology. Access to broadband internet in the US is excellent, cheap and ubiquitous. The whole Downtown Fort Collins is rigged up for wireless, as is the whole university campus. On the other hand, I do miss the cellular communications systems in South Africa. SIM cards, GSM networks, number porting between service providers, and consumer choice of handset as wide as you can imagine. Come back Vodacom, all is forgiven! The winner: the USA, by several Kbps.

  • Food. US supermarkets are stocked with the most amazing variety of products. From the seventy kinds of peanut butter, ninety flavours of ice cream and thousand formats of Coca-Cola, to the incredible selection of south-of-the-border treats like blue corn chips and chipotle salsa. On the other hand, I miss South Africa's supreme cornucopia of fresh produce: Cape apples, cling peaches, avocadoes by the bag, litchis by the box, papayas from Nelspruit farm stalls, spotless potatoes from Fruit-n-Veg City. Where's a Woolworths when you need one? The winner: sunny South Africa, by a head of cabbage.

  • Nature. Colorado is an amazingly beautiful place, sporting snow-covered mountains, valleys covered in pines and aspen trees, and fast flowing rivers stocked with trout. It's a place where you can walk out of your front door and find squirrels and red foxes co-existing in the suburbs. On the other hand, South Africa has a particular beauty all it's own: once experienced it is never forgotten. It is unique and precious; it is the landscape of my spirit.** The winner: South Africa, by a mountain that looks like a table and some wild horses wearing stripey pajamas.

  • Society. Americans are easily the friendliest, most helpful people I've ever met. Folks have no qualms with striking up an anonymous conversation on the bus, and everyone seems genuinely interested in where I come from and what I'm doing here. Online purchases are delivered to my door, and actually stay there - untouched - until I return home in the evening! On the other hand, South Africa is the only place where people really know how to do a proper barbecue -it's called a braai, folks. South Africans have a wonderful sense of humour and know how to laugh at themselves. It's the only place where people get what the word lekker means, which says a lot. The winner: The USA, by a white picket fence, patient drivers and a host of friendly store clerks.

So in the end, there is no real winner here. Some aspects of living in a new country are exciting, some are infuriating, some are delicious, some are fattening, some are confusing, some are gorgeous, some are quite scary. But better or worse? Hmm, I just can't tell you yet...

*Ooh, that last part was so twee, I think I just threw up a little as I was typing it.
** Urgh. I think I did it again.

9 September 2007

Suburban conspiracy theory

I live in the south of Fort Collins. This area is apparently called SoPro by some of the locals, as it's south of Prospect Rd. This area has a different character to Old Town Fort Collins in the north; it's an endless stretch of strip malls and big-box stores. I cannot walk around this part of town without humming the tune to (Nothing But) Flowers by Talking Heads to myself:

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies
I miss the honky tonks
Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention

Some of the residential streets look like Agrestic a la Weeds. All taken, it pretty much represents a generic kind of suburban sprawl. It's comforting, somehow. But somebody at town planning must have had a sense of humour. There's a street - very close to where I live - called John F. Kennedy Parkway (or JFK Pkwy for short). It's a busy street, home to banks, supermarkets and the post office. Several other streets in this college town are named after famous universities, like Stanford, Cornell, Princeton, Oxford, Rutgers, Monroe, Columbia, Yale, Pitkin, Cambridge, Baylor and many others. Right where I catch the number 1 bus to campus is the intersection between JFK and Monroe.

So, although Monroe Ave. is obviously named after Monroe College in New York state (itself named after U.S. president James Monroe)... you kind of have to wonder. It's just too beautiful a coincidence. Could they have snuck a secret reference to Marylin Monroe in there? While waiting for the bus one day, this is exactly what went through my mind. A nice little conspiracy theory, all my own, which I now share with you. I haven't yet figured out exactly what the conspiracy is, though. Maybe you could come up with some suggestions?

26 August 2007

Legal Alien

I have been in the United States of America for 20 days now. Not only is it another country, it's also another planet. I thought I'd be able to speak the language, but I was wrong...

New York is a living creature; a large sweaty mammal. On my first day in the humid city I arrived at The Roosevelt Hotel and discovered that I would be sharing my room with a guy from Venezuela who's also in New York for the Fulbright Gateway orientation program. After checking my baggage I set off to get lost in the Manhattan haze on my own. The hotel is wonderfully central, near Grand Central Terminal as it turned out. I quickly discovered the sublime Art Deco Chrysler Building towering over nearby Lexington Avenue. I loitered in its wood-and-marble lobby for a long time. Thereafter, I strolled down a sweltering 5th Avenue until I reached the Empire State Building on W 34 Street. The area here was noticeably more geared towards tourists, with several souvenir shops spilling I ♥ NY T-shirts and postcard spinners onto the bustling sidewalks. I discovered why, when walking west on 34th Street brought me to Broadway. Most of the snippets of conversation I caught from passersby wasn't English. The heat was getting to me. I slipped into the air-conditioned cool of Macy's on Herald Square and rode the quaint wooden escalators to their basement. I felt largely unimpressed by the gaudy excess of Times Square, although I must admit that I did buy some CDs (Fischerspooner and the new record by The Knife) at the Virgin Megastore there. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral and dipping into designer stores on 5th Avenue. I elected to visit the New York Public Library and walk to Madison Square Park, which is overlooked by the rather fabulous Flatiron Building. After dark, I discovered this wonderfully depressing 50's style diner with aquamarine and pink seats and melamine countertops where I just had to have dinner. Like something out of Ghost World.

The next day was jam-packed with talks in my orientation session. These consisted mostly of briefings on what to expect from my adventure - culture shock, the idiosyncrasies of US universities and the like. We did have a scavenger hunt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I didn't enjoy this much because:
a) we had to work in groups and I'm not a team player;
b) we kept having to run around shouting like maniacs, which bothered the other museum-goers;
c) we kept rushing past famous works of art (like paintings by Klimt and Renoir) without getting a chance to look at them;
d) we kept arguing about what the clues mean and what the answers are so that;
e) the one guy on my team got so exasperated that he actually tapped a Rembrandt;
f) causing a burly security guard to reprimand us (I thought we'd get kicked out).
Late that afternoon we were taken on an open-top bus tour of the city. I'm generally not a fan of oranized tours, as the operator's are usually annoying with all their banter and the whole thing goes too quickly. However, I was delightfully surprised when they took us to see Andy Warhol's old studio The Factory, and all the interesting bits around Battery Park and Wall Street. At dusk we were let off at Pier 17 to have a beer and watch the lights come on over Brooklyn Bridge. We drove back to the hotel past Ground Zero (unreal) and the harsh lights of the theatres on Broadway. Some new international friends and I elected to have a night on the town at a moody sushi bar called blue chili. I can recommend the Alaskan crab California rolls - delish!

The day after was again filled with talks on immigration status and student survival skills (yawn). When those were done, I took the subway up to Central Park to visit the Guggenheim Museum. Although the iconic facade by Frank Lloyd Wright was being restored when I visited it, the interior was as awe-inspiring as I'd hoped it would be, filled with crazy installations and classic works by Kandinsky, Rousseau and Pissarro. I took a walk through Central Park, a steamy man-made jungle in the middle of the metropolis. On the west side of Central Park I did what any sensible stalker would do and scoped out the Dakota Building, home of such stars as John Lennon and Lauren Bacall. They were filming some movie outside it, but I couldn't tell what it was, or see any famous people, so I took the subway to Greenwich Village. Starting at the Memorial Arch in Washington Square Park, I walked around to get a feel of the Village, easily my favourite part of the city. Full of clubs, gay bars, organic wholefood markets, sex shops, little old ladies, second-hand record stores and turn-of-the-century tenement houses, it felt like Cape Town's Observatory on a grand scale, somehow. I walked up Christopher Street and payed my respects to the Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 drag queen riots and the start of the Pride movement. It seemed desolate; all but forgotten. Close by on bustling 6th Avenue I found Gray's Papaya. This is a place much mythologized by Wendy, so I just had to have one of their piña coladas. You were right, Wendy, refreshing and delicious. I'll search them out again when I'm there.

My last day in the city that never sleeps started at the offices of the Institute of International Education, which is right opposite the United Nations! After a wrap-up session and a sensational lunch on the balcony overlooking the UN plaza, I returned to the hotel to freshen up. Our final evening was to be spent in Chinatown. Chinatown felt like another city entirely. More colourful than the rest of New York, and more smelly. I tasted longans from a street vendor for the first time; they're sort of like the bastard children of a litchi and a grape, really. Seafood restaurants abound in this area. Of note is their practice of keeping the items for the menu alive in small cramped fish tanks until right before they are ordered, which seemed odd and cruel. The restaurant where we had our thing was called Jing Fong, in Elizabeth Street. The huge venue managed to cater for all 150 of us, although the Chinese food wasn't to all international tastes. The Costa Rican girl at my table and I had to pre-taste and putatively identify each course before some of the others would even touch it! Needless to say the whole affair devolved into a messy drunken karaoke party before the night was over.

There are so many things I didn't get to see or do. If only I had more time... "it's up to you/ New York/ New York!"