25 October 2009

2009-10-25: The tape-measured forest


After a reasonably on-time departure for Makoka, I spent the day measuring the heights of seedlings at Nkula Field. When I do this by myself, I have to use a special system to remember several consecutive numbers before I can write them down; that system is reproduced here in more detail than you care to know. In the afternoon, a fire started in the nearby Gliricidia forest; it probably posed no threat to my experiment, but it made me worry and the smoke was annoying. I picked up my hidden butterfly wings on the way home, enjoyed the rare presence of electricity at bath-time, and spent the evening in front of my computer.

Main text:

It was an uneventful morning, with the usual routine of waking up too late and getting ready to go to Makoka. My task for the day was to make good progress on measuring the heights of seedlings at Nkula Field.

I didn't want to be slowed down by breakfast, so I just ate a few lemon cream biscuits and made it out the door around 9:30, which at least is an improvement over previous days. When my minibus stopped at Thondwe, I bought a cob of roasted maize and ate half of it as the rest of my breakfast. The other half would be lunch or dinner. Good thing I'm not on a low-carb diet.

It was 10:20 when I disembarked at Makoka. Nearly an hour better than last time! Hey, if I can get to Makoka an hour earlier each day, by week's end I'll be arriving at 5 AM, just in time for first light. (That would be one of the nice things about actually living at Makoka: being able to roll out of bed and into the field. As you may remember, I tried to get accommodation at Makoka last year, but my request was repeatedly deferred. Now that I am comfortably settled in town, I don't think I'll pursue that request again. But let's see how I feel in December when I have to plant Gliricidia seedlings before sunrise...)

As I walked down the road, a teenage boy who had been kicking a ball in the road with his brother abandoned the game and fell into step with me. He asked me the typical questions that Malawian schoolchildren learn to ask in English: "What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going? How old are you?" I answered these, unsure how much he would understand. But his English turned out to be fairly good. He said he was a Form 1 (Year 9; 9th grade) student at St Anthony's Secondary School. I asked him polite questions about himself until his path diverged toward the church and mine toward the water pump.

He walked away a few steps, then turned and followed me again. "Madam," he said, "I am going to church. Can you give me money? For church?"

"No, I'm sorry," I said. "I don't have enough." (This was true; today I'd only bought enough money for my minibus fare. But even when I have extra, as a rule I do not give people money just because they ask. I get asked a lot.)

"OK," he said. "See you," and loped down the path to the church. I hoped I remembered his face; this scenario happens so often, with so many dozens of different children, I'm not always sure who I've met before. But they always remember me: I am Catherine, the eccentric mzungu who walks around with hoes and wheelbarrows.

As I approached the path to Nkula Field, I encountered three young girls climbing the trees in the Gliricidia seed orchard. "Catherine," one shouted. "Give me your money."

"No, sorry," I said. They giggled.

Despite these typical examples, I'm quite sure that I am not being asked for money nearly as often this year as I was last year. I suppose people know me now, and know that I am not likely to start handing out fistfuls of kwacha upon request.

* * * * *

I greeted the day watchman, found the plot where I'd left off, and got out my notebook and tape measure. Immediately I encountered a problem: my tape measure was stuck. I had reinforced the battered end with duct tape, which made it stronger but also bulkier, and now the duct-taped end was caught inside the casing. I grabbed hold of the hook on the end and tried to pull the measuring tape out.

Rip! The hook came off in my hand. Now I had a tape measure missing its tip, entirely stuck inside its casing. This was not the best start to a day's work that consists entirely of measuring.

Well, thank goodness for my Swiss Army knife. I used the Phillips-head screwdriver to unscrew the back of the tape measure and expose its innermost secrets. I grabbed the elusive tip, pulled it back out, and measured how much was missing. About 2.6 centimetres. Since I only measured to seedling heights to the nearest centimetre, I'd have to slightly underestimate and then add 3.

To prevent the tip from pulling back inside again, I used the pocketknife's auger to make a small hole in the duct-tape flap, and stuck a twig through at a right angle. It worked! Hey, I never said this project was high-tech. (Note to funding agencies: Ecology research gives you much better value for money than does high-energy physics. Please consider buying this grad student a new tape measure.)

* * * * *

When I am measuring seedlings by myself, I have to alternate between two tasks:
  1. measuring seedling height with the tape measure;

  2. recording the height in my notebook.

This may sound trivial, but actually, it makes the task much more difficult. I really need two hands for measuring (especially with such tall seedlings!) and two hands for recording. My compromise is to tuck the notebook under my arm, measure the heights of as many seedlings as I can consecutively remember (usually four), take out the notebook, write down the measurements I have just memorised, clear my memory, and repeat.

Here is a photo I took when doing this same task in April 2009. You can tell it's a different time of year because the maize is mature and the rain shelter roofs are on, but the basic setup is the same:

It is surprisingly difficult to remember four random numbers between 10 and 200 when you are interrupted after each number by the task of measuring a seedling from the bottom of the trunk to the tip of the tallest apical meristem. And yet, if I paused to write down each measurement one at a time, my progress would be laughably slow - taking out the tape measure, measuring, putting away the tape measure, getting out the notebook, writing, putting away the notebook. So I have had to cultivate my numerical short-term memory. It is a mentally demanding task: I've found, for example, that I can't do it while talking on the phone, nor when I am short on sleep. (In those cases I can't expect to remember more than two numbers at a time.)

I can remember words or ideas more easily than I can remember numbers, especially if there is some way to link together these ideas. So, whenever possible, I associate a number with a concept. After repeating these seedling measurements (and similar tasks) so many times, I now have a concept for just about every two-digit number. (Single digits are easy enough to remember on their own.)

Just for fun, I am reproducing here some of my number associations. I didn't sit down and craft this list consciously; it just accreted gradually in my head as I carried out measurement tasks. Some of these linkages will make sense to everybody; some will make sense to no one but me.

13 Bad luck
16 Sweet sixteen...
17 ...Going on 17
18 Legal drinking age (Australia)
22 Catch-22
24 Hours in a day
25 Five squared
26 Old house number
29 My age
32 Freezing point of water, F
35 Age you can be President
36 Six squared
39 The Thirty-Nine Steps
42 Life, the Universe, and Everything
44 The Fox network
45 End of World War II
47 AK-47
49 San Francisco 49ers
51 Area 51 and UFOs
52 Playing cards in a deck
55 Highway speed limit
57 Heinz ketchup varieties
62 Age at which Carl Sagan died
64 The $64 million question
65 Retirement age
66 Route 66
69 Apollo moon landing
71 SR-71 Blackbird
76 U.S. independence
77 G-77 group of countries
78 RPM of old records
80 My birth year
88 Number of keys on a piano
89 Loma Prieta earthquake
94 Year we moved back to Australia
97 Year I started uni
98 Year I was at UQ
101 Dalmatians
102 KDFC Classical
103 A very high fever

In fact, I have an association for nearly every number; I just haven't listed them all here. Most of the unassociated numbers are inherently charismatic ones such as 50 or 99. For the remainder, I usually just remember the difference from the nearest associated number (e.g. "Life, the Universe, and Everything, minus one." And for numbers over 100, I just ignore the first digit - it is usually obvious enough when looking at the seedling. (There are a few three-digit numbers for which I have specific associations, such as 118 and 212, but that is just for fun.)

There's more to it, though. For the Tephrosia seedlings, the numbers come in pairs (because the seedlings are planted in pairs). Whenever possible, I strengthen my memory by linking together the numbers in the pair - either by comparing their relative sizes, or calculating the difference between them, or linking their associated concepts. For example, if I measured two seedlings that were 162 and 151 centimetres respectively, all I would need to remember is "Carl Sagan debunked UFOs." Or, 165 and 149 centimetres: "Retiree watching football."

The pairs of seedlings, and the two-digit numbers, also tend to make me think of couples' ages. If I measure a pair of seedlings that are 21 and 19 centimetres, I think of a pair of college students going on a date. 87 and 82 centimetres, I think of an elderly couple in a nursing home. And so on.

This is all probably much more than you wanted to know, but since it is what I have been spending all day doing, I wanted to write it down!

* * * * *

After getting through two Tephrosia plots (each with 108 seedlings), I was feeling unaccountably sleepy, and the sun was discouragingly hot. I decided to rest in the shade of one of the Tephrosia improved fallows. I lay in a furrow with my head on a ridge, using my hat for a pillow. Ah, it was good to be still and cool for a little while, and listen to the sounds of insects and birds around me.

Scarcely had I closed my eyes when I heard footsteps approach. "Madam," called Mr Machaka, the watchman. "You are OK?"

"Yes, I'm fine, thanks," I said, sitting up. "I am just resting."

"You are not sick?"

"No, I'm OK! Thank you."

Since he spends all day resting in the shade himself, I would have thought he'd understand. But I guess it is peculiar for a white woman to curl up in the shade beneath her Tephrosia trees.

* * * * *

I slept for a little while, then awoke feeling better, though still sluggish. To wake myself up, I ate a mango for a snack (a tasty and messy process, made easier by my pocketknife - I always cut two slabs off the side, score the flesh into cubes, and turn the slabs inside out). Then I went back to work. 174, 167. 190, 174. 191, 172. 241, 213. And so on.

The reason I measure seedling height is because it is the easiest non-destructive measurement to keep track of the seedlings' growth. It's not perfect, though: some seedlings are much bulkier (or much more frail) than their height would suggest. It really depends on their degree of branching. I wondered if maybe I should include another number for "branching index," assesed either subjectively or objectively. But since the measurements are already so time-consuming, I decided I'd have to do without it. Maybe for the next batch of seedlings I will attempt a more sophisticated allometry.

160, 144. 148, 133. 199, 125. 121... What was that crackling sound?

I heard some popping noises from the nearby grove of mature Gliricidia trees. It sounded like a fire. I put my tape measure down and walked to the edge of the field to investigate.

Indeed it was a fire. A plume of smoke was rising from the forest, and a flock of swallows was darting in and out of it, eagerly seeking insects that were fleeing the flames. Out of the frying pan, into the swallow's mouth!

Mr Machaka soon went into the forest to investigate. I stayed in the field measuring, but felt uneasy. I doubted the fire could spread to this field because the field-forest border had already been burned a few weeks ago (slightly scorching the edges of several of my plots). Still, there was a lot at stake. I didn't want half my dissertation to go up in smoke.

Presently Mr Machaka returned from his reconnaissance. "There is fire over there," he reported to me.

"Yes, I know," I said. "I can see it. Is it very big?"

"Not very big," he said. "But these fire is bad."

I assumed he meant the practice of setting fire to the forest was bad in general, not that this particular fire was especially serious.

"Did someone make the fire on purpose?" I asked.

"He just burn it and run away. I not find him."

"Why did he make the fire?"

"I don't know. He just burn everything. But it is bad. Those trees is for ICRAF. You tell Mrs Kalipinde. Me, I want to tell her, but she do not listen."

"OK, I'll tell her," I said. Mrs Kalipinde, the ICRAF nursery manager, could in principle rebuke the villagers for damaging ICRAF's Gliricidia seed banks on Makoka property. However, it was too late to stop this particular fire. Hopefully it would do the Gliricidia trees little harm, since they were quite large and had already lost most of their leaves for the dry season. Still, the crackling noises and the veil of smoke made me worried and distracted.

* * * * *

I continued measuring seedlings, trying to focus on the task and not to worry about the fire. I cheered up a little when I found an abandoned bird's nest in one of the bigger Tephrosia seedlings. I bet it belonged to the pin-tailed whydahs who were courting at Nkula Field in April and May.

During the breeding season, male pin-tailed whydahs are laughably absurd: they're small black-and-white finches with a black plumed tail that is - literally! - three times longer than their body. This weighs them down so that they can barely fly. They try to impress the drab, sparrow-coloured females by hovering over them with rapid wing-beats, chirping and dangling their tails. Oh, the effort this must take! However, the female pin-tailed whydahs never seem too impressed. As far as I could tell, even the most earnest fluttering and chirping on the part of the males was met with cold rebuff.

Here is a photo of a male pin-tailed whydah that I took a few days before I left in May. Perhaps he was the architect of the nest I found today:

I had been pleased to see the whydahs using the Tephrosia seedlings as perches for their courtship rituals, and now I was pleased to see that the Tephrosia had been used as nurseries too. Apparently that male pin-tailed whydah scored after all. Chalk one up for positive effects of agroforestry on biodiversity!

* * * * *

The afternoon wore on, and the fire crackled intermittently, sometimes waning, sometimes snapping back to life again. Around four o'clock, the wind changed direction, and the smoke began drifting directly over the field. This made the atmosphere rather unpleasant. By the time I finished at five o'clock, I was feeling positively woozy from breathing smoke for too long. (This was on top of the hours I spent last night being unable to sleep because of acrid smoke from burning rubbish coming through my windows.) I'll be glad when the dry season is over and the country stops being on fire!

I left Nkula Field just as the night watchman, Mr Malalo, was arriving. He asked me (as best he could with his little English and my little Chichewa) to bring a torch so that he could patrol the field better at night. This was a reasonable request, so I told him I would bring one as soon as possible.

My trip home was uneventful. I was glad to get a minibus right away; sometimes on Sundays they are few and far between. I ate the rest of my roasted maize on the way home (cold and stiff thought it was), which would count as dinner, or at least part thereof.

As I was passing the MTL building, I rememebered: my butterfly! What had happened to the feeble but beautiful butterfly I had stashed under a poinsettia bush two days ago? Had it recovered and flown away, or been eaten by something, or died and remained where it fell? I retraced my steps to the same bush, and there - exactly where I had left them - were four perfect butterfly wings. No body, just wings. I was sorry for the butterfly, but my plan had worked perfectly. The ants were welcome to the body, and they had left me the lovely wings. I cupped them carefully in my hand and carried them home, thinking about how I could use them.

Thankfully, the electricity was on when I got home, so I could actually take a proper shower for a change, and see what I was doing. A Tephrosia leaf fell out of my hair, which made me laugh. That's what I get for spending all day amongst Tephrosia seedlings.

* * * * *

I spent the evening quietly in front of my computer. I should have worked on a draft of the scholarship application that I promised to send my professors by tomorrow, but I was too tired, so I just caught up on blog entries instead. I think I'll have to stay in town tomorrow to finish that application draft.

I wish I could spend all day every day in the field, and all evening every evening working on academic writing, but I can't. By the time I get back from the field at six o'clock, it seems that I can only ever muster enough energy to take a shower, eat dinner, and go to sleep. I think I need to train myself to do simple but still useful tasks in the evenings: entering data, sewing litterbags, counting maize kernels, those kinds of things. If I made it a goal to spend an hour on field "homework" each night, I would accomplish a lot more over the next seven months. Then I would feel better about taking the occasional day off to work on grant writing or dissertation writing.

As I write this, smoke is again drifting through my windows. Oh, I hope it clears up before I have to go to sleep. Next month I'm looking forward to the return of rainy skies and clear air.

Chichewa word of the day: moto = fire

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