Tuesday, 9 December 2008


(notes from one other remote, exotic place, with strange people and customs: Cornwall)
In a Papuan rainforest location I recently witnessed a PR person bragging about how her company had really not done that much damage to the environment at all. In a field which had previously been a complex forest ecosystem on the equatorial, there now lies a grass meadow with grazing cows, right out of a Constable painting. And we thought that clichés were only harmful to the soul...
Now, in Cornwall, I am struck by how desolate the land is in the ‘mature economies’. The beautiful meadows, with the gorgeous rolling hedges (the latter - to be precise - can contain a surprising complexity of life in them), the cows and horses… It all seems so empty and destroyed compared to the real thing. Desolate, really, is the word. 
Csaba Aradi, the former director of the Hortobagy National Park in Hungary once played a little game with me. I - in my usual polite manner - asked him, why on Earth people are so interested in the flat barren land over which he resided. Hortobagy is a great plain. It was, I suggested, just grass and nothing. His response? He made me walk in a random direction, of my choice, for a random distance, also my choice, on this ‘empty field’. Then we kneeled down, and he made me count the species I could see within a circle of one-metre diameter. It took a while: there were a lot of species. Then we stood up, he made me choose another direction, and we walked just two metres. Kneeled down again, many distinct species again, almost none of them the same. The species diversity in this ‘flat, barren field’ was very high indeed. 
Now take Papua, the extreme version of ecological variation. You cannot say this slowly enough, for my mind to take it in. There are more than 2000 different orchids on Papua. Two thousand. More than 600 birds. Incredible. 61 different species of snakes. Some 2400 different fish. How many birds, or fish can I name? Or remember ever having seen? Including the zoo, the nature books, the Attenborough movies, and all my hikes altogether. I guess - I have seen quite a few – but it is maybe 300 max. Now Papua has double all the birds I think I have ever glanced at in life, on the screen or in books. Or fish: if I spent only a minute looking at each species, I would need almost two days of constant looking to get through them. (This is why people come up with silly comparisons -- the magnitude just cannot be felt through a number on the screen, albeit a four-digit one. The next thing I will do is calculate whether all the fish species lined up one after the other would actually reach the moon...)
And to top it all, you have more than 100 thousand insect species alone. Now, that is a lot of bugs.
Then look at the English landscape. Grass and grazing cows. That is two species. Well, grass is a little more complicated, so maybe a few more. And the weeds. And the crows. And… Er… There is also the fly, yeah? It is a desert.

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