Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Release!

Gray climbed into the back seat and closed up the windows – all but one which he used to signal to his ground crew.  He had a brief word to the control tower on his portable radio, then, all signals given, the tow plane started to move forward and the rope took up the slack.  All at once we were moving forward and the glider, which had been tilted to one side so a wing was touching the runway, levelled off and picked up some speed.  The aircraft rose gently in front of us and we followed a few seconds later.  Losing the noise of the wheels on the ground, all we had with us was the engine noise in the plane up front.  Our ascent was shallow and we circled several times over the runway to gain altitude.  I could start to appreciate the land below, both the tight urban landscape of Brookings itself, and then the never ending prospect of fields stretching out over the Great Plains.

Onwards and upwards we went for many minutes.  Eventually, Gray spoke to me through the headphones and asked me to get ready to detach the tow rope.  On his command I pulled the big wooden knob towards me, and we felt a sharp jolt as the glider was sent off on its own trajectory and the plane dropped away quickly, retracting its rope and heading for the runway.

We were there on our own and the only accompanying noise came from the roar of the wind and my quickened breathing.  It was spectacular.  For a geographer to have the opportunity to glide like a bird of prey over the country, and to help identify where to go next, was fantastic.  Yes, we can all look at Google Earth these days, but it does not give you that experience of being in the atmosphere above the areas you are observing.  Yes we can fly in planes, but they are on set routes, often above the clouds, and pushy stewardesses insist on you closing the blinds to allow others to watch fantasy films when the majesty of real life is passing below you.


Take off

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – The Glider

We also had a wander around the botanical gardens.  Although small, it was in full colour – the fall was probably in its finest week before the snow which had threatened earlier in the week finally took hold and made the leaves drop. It was getting close to lunch time by now and Gray had a surprise for me, but first we decided to eat and met up with his wife at the town library.  The strip we had spent most time on so far was in fact just the main road out of town and because it was close to the university campus, had a range of cafes and boutique shops.  The real down town was that one Main Street with the bank and hotel and all the other important buildings.  The library was tucked at the back of this.  When we emerged, Gray looked up at the sky; which was almost completely blue, and said “I think we are going to get a good view.”

We drove a mile or so past a small industrial estate south west of town and drew up at the entrance to Brookings Airfield.  No commercial flights come in and out but it had a bustle of industry which you do not see in small airfields in the UK.  Plenty of small two-seater planes, a helicopter or two, and many large hangers were scattered around.  Gray drove to one of these hangars and unlocked a small door, stepping inside to start up the mechanism to open the larger hangar doors, which rolled up into the roof.  Inside were a bunch of boys’ toys.  Several antique and vintage cars, another biplane and, taking up most of the central space, a fixed wing glider.  This was Gray’s pride and joy – he had been a pilot for many years.  In fact he had told me of a trip once to the UK where he had flown – turned out he had been at a gliding club on the North Downs less than 20 miles from my home.

We’d chatted to a couple of guys dressed up in old leathers who were looking at their own valued toy at the other end of the hangar.  It was an old fighter plane – I was never told whether it was an original refurbished one or a modern remake, but it looked the part.  It was apparently one of the US Marine Fighter Squadron, and it roared into life and was taxied out into the open air, round several hangars before taking off.   A second biplane went up in the air while Gray prepared his glider.


Gray’s pride and joy

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – England’s way north of Greenland”

It’s an interesting dichotomy.  I find it amazing that the urban landscape does not change much across the whole US – the road signs, the fire hydrants, the streetlighting, the construction in many places never seems to change from Los Angeles to Miami, from San Antonio to Sioux Falls.  OK – that is not quite true.  I was surprised to find out the street names are on blue signs in much of California as opposed to the green ones you find in other states.  The flip side I realised  after my first ever trip to the States, to Texas, where I learnt how much the states to do operate so much on their own, and resent the federal control that is seen as the dominant force to anyone outside of the States.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed many of my trips to the States and I have had the company of many Americans on my trips around the world.  I have no blanket loathing of a nation of 250 million people – that would be ridiculous.  Although, I have come across some examples of complete ignorance in my time.

When in Houston I went to Brazos Bend, one of the few natural areas in the hinterland of this huge metropolis.  The slow moving rivers twist and turn in willow lined creeks to their inevitable emergence in the Gulf of Mexico, and have become a haven for alligators.  I was walking around the reserve at Brazos Bend and approached a couple on a bridge over one of the side creeks.  They were looking down into the water and I saw they were staring at an alligator snoozing in the weeds.

“How do you know if they are male or female” the woman said.

“I’ve got no idea” I said.  She paused and stared at me

“Hey….. you’re not from round here , are ya?”

“No, I’m English”

The man chipped in “England; that’s up beyond New York isn’t it”

“No silly” said the woman  “England – that’s way north of Greenland”.

I had no way of helping them understand and left it – there are some places a geographer should not get too pedantic.  It turned out this couple were on vacation in Brazos Bend; they came from a small town about 50 miles away.  They had never been abroad, had no passports.  They had never been out of Texas.

I don’t judge them; I know some people find all the life and inspiration they need from their immediate environs and never see the need to travel.  But it did demonstrate a level of ignorance about the world outside that I found from some sectors of population here.


Days and Nights of Freetown – The Charcoalers

We had to park the car at the entrance to the village and then negotiate a marshy stream to end up on the drier higher ground on which most of the settlement had been established.  They were under a huge canopy of trees but the ground below had been cleared by people, goats and chickens.  I noticed how black the soil was and realised it was a combination of a rich swampy soil and years of charcoal burning which was the main source of income for the village.

Jan was greeted as an old friend – he’d only been there once but you don’t get many white guys down this cul de sac.  I was introduced to people and we asked if we could go and look at what was going on.  We walked as near as we could get to the river.  It was flowing past some mangroves in the distance.  Obviously the tide still reached all the way up here.  To our right, a large tributary served as an area to moor their dugout canoes, from which they were heading out into the mangroves to forage for wood.  This was being brought up on to the muddy shoreline and chopped into convenient sizes.  Close to the stream they were being neatly piled, but further in they were arranged with their ends pointing towards a central spot and steadily built up into a rondavel ready for lighting.  I could see the next stage of the process to my right, where river mud had been packed over the pile and the centre set alight.  Smoke was now dribbling out of a few holes in this mudpack but inside the wood was steadily cooking to turn it in to valuable charcoal.

Not all the wood was used as charcoal – huge piles of logs and timber poles were stacked up all round the village.  In some ways it was very industrious and they obviously had access to an amazing resource.  But I did find it jarring that my project was trying to protect the Guinea biome in the north of the country and here there were similar levels of logging and stripping out of slow growing wood to meet the insatiable demand of Greater Freetown for building material and fuel.

Days and Nights of Freetown – Working on the beach

It was tiring work – and my soft hands blistered easily on the rough rope.  I got a mixture of encouragement and jibes from my effort, but most of the people there were pleased a white guy had come along to help them get the catch.  Most of the hauling was achieved by a few strong heavy set guys, but even a few little children were joining in as were a couple of women who could have easily put me over their shoulder and taken me off to their village if they so thought about it.  Someone at the back started to chant a deep slow song which helped to pace the hauling hand over hand.

At this time the beach was dominated by men.  I then saw a load of people, mainly women, come through a gap in the dunes, no doubt from the village that was just behind, carrying an assortment of plastic bowls and buckets.  They took up positions in the shallow water and waited as the net came closer to the shore.  I noticed the boats which had been spread out in the water when we first approached had now come in close to the net and their occupants were reaching down inside the net to scoop up the first of the catch.  On went the hauling.  Now I could see the water surface was boiling away as the fish became more tightly grouped and began to panic.

Jan and I had given up hauling in and watched the scene, Jan trying to get in with his camera to get some close ups.  A couple of people started to introduce themselves to me and ask where I came from.  Some were friendly, some inquisitive, others just drunk on palm wine and after money to feed their habit.

The final push to bring the net in commenced – it was barely 100m round the water and the fish took up almost the whole volume.  The fishermen had obviously carefully chosen this late part of the afternoon when the sun was beginning to get low in the sky to spread their net, as it is when fish tend to congregate in the shallows, and they could maximize the haul.  Buckets and bowls were now being dipped into the melee and up came a full catch of silvery slithering creatures.  I was disappointed to see how small most of the catch was; mostly juveniles.  Was it a case that overfishing had depleted the bigger sized fish as elsewhere in the world or were these the ones which hung around the shallows at this time.  Whatever, two things were clear; in quantity terms this was a huge source of protein to an entire village, but also the practice of taking out such big amounts of small fish did not bode well for the long term sustainability of the fishery.


On the beach

Living in the community – The privilege of immersing in local communities

It is a privilege to travel beyond your usual routine locations, it is a privilege to go beyond your own country’s borders, and it is even more of a privilege to work alongside people from other nations and explore not just the landscape but the rhythms of places.  But to actually embed within a community, to live alongside them, share their whole days and nights, work play and socialise with them, is a supreme honour.

It has happened rarely in my travels – apart from the two years I lived in the Virgin Islands.  Conditions there were similar to the UK; yes we had our frustrations with electricity and water supply, bat droppings coming through the roof and cockroaches, but overall it was a comfortable and familiar homelife.

One of the few other times where I spent more than one night in a community, the experience was very different.  I knew the village I was to stay in, Fintonia in Sierra Leone.  My previous visit had been a few hours visiting the STEWARD office and having a meeting at the acting Paramount Chief’s house.  Now I was to travel there, stay at a small “guest house” in the village among the community for a week and work with them.  I knew from the prior visit that the only known location for electricity was a generator in our project’s office.  There was no running water and no sewerage system.  It was going to be basic.

I was travelling with my colleague, Kofi, from Ghana, and was lucky enough to have a good friend of mine, Gray, from USGS, with me.  I’d arrived in country a few days before and had caught up with various friends and new colleagues at the project office.  It was so nice to have arrived in Freetown in the dry season.  My previous two visits, although interesting, had been frustrated by the almost constant torrential rain.  Even the travel to work had been a nightmare, trooping along wet potholed roads, avoiding miserable commuters on foot, bike, motorbike or donkey.  Everything was damp, inside and out.  At the weekends you were left in your apartment looking out at sheets of water hurtling down out of the sky.


In the office at Freetown with Gray

Now in February, the evenings were pleasant and warm; the daytimes there was blue sky.  The ground was dry and baked hard in the sun; only the larger rivers had any decent amounts of flow in them and the water was clear and black as opposed to brown and muddy.  I was looking forward to this excursion.