24 October 2009

2009-10-24: Plotting the seedlings' fate


After getting a somewhat late start, I spent the day in front of my computer at Tasty Bites. My biggest accomplishment was writing a comprehensive email to Festus and Margaret about what I should do in the seedling experiment this year. Workmen are laying new tiles on our kitchen floor; there was a bird saying "Wooooo" outside my window tonight. It was not a very eventful day - sorry, readers!

Main text:

This was a boring day, and it makes for a boring blog entry. Sorry about that - fieldwork is not always daring and spectacular. Sometimes it consists of sitting in front of one's computer writing emails.

* * * * *

I awoke around 8 again, which wasn't too bad, but I still felt like it was the middle of the night, and I kept hitting snooze until around 9. So I began yet another day by feeling sheepish. (West-to-east is definitely the worse direction for jetlag, since it puts you in direct contradiction with Ben Franklin's advice on how to be healthy, wealthy and wise.)

In a country where most people rise by six o'clock, 9:00 may as well be noon. I felt mortified to still be in my nightgown, all the more so because workmen had descended on our flat and started replacing the floor tiles in the kitchen and front hall. BANG, BANG, BANG went their hammers as they chipped away the old linoleum. I didn't want to venture out of my room without looking more awake and presentable, but there was a catch-22, since I needed the bathroom for that purpose.

Well, eventually I braved the commotion, ducked out of my room, and got washed and dressed. But I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for going to Makoka. It would be lunchtime when I arrived, and the fields would be scorching hot. I was hungry, and I couldn't use our discombobulated kitchen, and anyway there were a lot of emails I needed to catch up on. All these factors compelled me to head to to Tasty Bites Cafe down the road.

* * * * *

Ah, Tasty Bites. My office-away-from-home. I'm not too fond of the instant coffee, the often-curdled milk, or the hideously uncomfortable chairs that don't fit under the tables. But the staff are friendly, the prices are reasonable (as long as you order egg and chips, which I always do), the location is convenient and shady, and... there's really no other game in town, if you want a place to sit and work on your computer.

(That's not quite true. Bethel Books and Coffee Shop, on the other side of town, is nicer than Tasty Bites. And they have real coffee! But they're further away, pricier, and their opening hours are much more restricted, so I only go there on rare occasions.)

Tasty Bites has gotten really spruced up since I left in May. They have a new lawn out front, a new patio with outdoor tables and umbrellas, new menus, new wall decorations, and several new signs. It's a very popular place in Zomba, both with Malawians and with expats - the casual atmosphere and spacious seating make it a good place for meeting friends or colleagues. In this case, my colleague was my laptop Clara. I asked her if she wanted anything, but she didn't, so I just ordered my egg and chips.

* * * * *

The most important email I had to write today was to Festus and Margaret, regarding how to proceed with the seedling experiment at Nkula Field. I had so many questions for them I didn't know where to begin. It took me more than an hour just to get all my ideas down, and another two hours to make the questions succinct and coherent. By the time I was finished, it was sort of a mini-research-proposal. Here are some excerpts:


At the seedling establishment experiment, I am going to remove half of the existing seedlings from each plot and replace them with new seedlings this year. This is to compensate for the fact that my drought manipulation came too late last year. I still want to examine the effect of drought on first-year seedlings as well as second-year seedlings, but now I will have to study the two cohorts simultaneously instead of sequentially.

QUESTION 1: How can I best quantify the BELOW-GROUND biomass and rooting depth of the seedlings?

PROBLEM: Land preparation is supposed to take place during the dry season. However, it is not possible to excavate seedling roots during the dry season, since the soil is rock-hard. If I wait to harvest all the seedlings until the wet season has begun, my methods will not represent actual farming practise.

QUESTION 2: How, if at all, should I account for litterfall in the Tephrosia plots?

PROBLEM: The young Tephrosia have dropped significant quantities of leaf litter during the dry season. That litter is now on the soil surface. If I measure only living biomass, I will underestimate total above-ground biomass production.

QUESTION 3: How can I measure the N content of seedling biomass, and how (if at all) can I measure biological nitrogen fixation? (I want to be able to quantify the amount of N added to the system.)

PROBLEM: As far as I know, Makoka Research Station has no equipment for elemental analysis. To quantify plant N content, I would need to use outside facilities.

This was only a small fraction of the total email, but you get the idea.
All these questions had been weighing on my mind for awhile, even since before I came back to Malawi, but it took a couple of hours of sustained concentration to be able to express it all clearly. Now I felt that the questions (and tentative answers) were pretty well organised in my mind. Well, I suppose that was a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

I also wrote a few other emails and finished a blog entry, then around five o'clock headed off to All Seasons Internet Cafe. (Although Tasty Bites ostensibly has wireless Internet, it never works.) It was a great relief to send my laboured-over emails to their final destinations (especially the fellowship emails from yesterday, whose dispatch was stymied by my flash drive failure).

As per habit, I walked home from Tasty Bites along the quiet back road (Kalimbuka Road). A few minutes into the walk, I remembered about the dying butterfly I tucked away at the MTL building yesterday. Was it still there? Had it been eaten by ants? Now I'd missed my chance, since I was taking a different route home. I'd have to look tomorrow.

Also as per habit, the power went out during my walk home. I arrived back to a candlelit flat. I did more work on my computer (and snacked on watermelon) until the power came back on. Shortly thereafter, I was flashed* by Mr Tambala. I rang him back and he asked me a ponderous and incomprehensible question about whether he could switch duties with the day watchman. In the course of trying to understand him, I ran out of credit. Drat! I went out to buy more, but the BP shop was closed, and the corner shop was out of stock.

So, there was nothing I could do but go back home and make myself avocado on toast for dinner.

For the rest of the evening, I worked on an application that is due at the end of next week: Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship. I'll tell you more about it later. It is the first of my (probably many) attempts this year to coax someone into giving me lots of money.

Oddly, the power went out again around 10 PM. Usually it is reliable once the dinnertime outage is over. I lit my candle, and used that as an excuse to switch to personal writing instead of academic writing.

* * * * *

So I spent all day in front of my computer. Sometimes it is necessary to have days like that, even in Malawi. And yet, I'll get far too many computer-days when I am back in California actually writing my dissertation. I will long for the days when I was standing under the blazing sun with a tape measure in hand (or a hoe, or a panga...)

Now it's 11:30 PM and I'm alone in my room. The smell of burning rubbish is wafting in through the window. The candle has gone out so I have only the light from the screen. I'm listening to William Wilson's classical guitar music, and outside my window is the bird that says "Woooo!"

Yes, that's right. it is a nocturnal bird and I have only ever heard it at these flats; it seems to live by the river. It just repeats "Wooooo" in a deep, velvety voice. Not "Whooo" like an owl but clearly "Woooo." The pitch goes up a bit in the middle:

wooOOOOoo. woooOOOooo. wooOOOOooo.

Wooo-bird, I shall never see you. You will remain forever hidden in the cloak of night, just as the wine-glass-bird remains hidden by the sheltering trees. (There should be a "Guide to Invisible Birds of Malawi.")

P.S. After writing this, I was kept awake for another several hours by the choking smoke from burning rubbish. The smoke density implied that the fire was right outside my window, but it could've been as far away as next door; perhaps there was an unfortunate wind. I couldn't close my louvre windows because they don't close properly; I don't have a fan; I thought about sleeping in the living room but it was still occupied; I tried putting my blanket over my head but that was too stuffy. Ugh! What a bad idea to burn rubbish right next to residential buildings at night, when everyone is at home asleep, and not in a position to evade the toxic smoke!

Chichewa word of the day: utsi = smoke


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