What is wrong in this picture

6 06 2012

The view from my house

This is the view from my house some 4km north of Harare, Zimbabwe. Lucy asked me some time ago if I ever get tired of it. I didn’t hesitate; it was a unequivical “No!” But all is not what it seems.

The enlargement at 1 (you will need to click on the main picture to see it clearly) shows the Great Dyke, a geological feature that runs down the centre of Zimbabwe and is the source of major mineral wealth. It is also where we paraglide, or used to in the days when there were more than 5 pilots left in a country larger than the UK! The actual launch site is not quite visible in this photo. What IS remarkable is that this feature is 60km away and reasonably clearly visible. On a clear day it is much more visible than this.I took this photo on the 5th May and as you can see there is a certain amount of smoke around already as we head into our dry winter season. A large proportion of the country WILL burn and the view will disappear (click on this AFIS link for the latest satellite imagery of fires in Southern Africa – it is quite sobering). Of course not only does the view disappear but a substantial amount of the biomass does too and soil fertility plummets. While the world faces iminent food supply issues and much is being discussed on how to solve it, a lot could be done by just implementing good farming practices in this part of the world.

The hillside pictured at 2 is all of 600m away and this too will become nearly invisible at the height of the fire season in October. When I first moved into this house some 7 years ago this hillside was considerably more forested – about as much as one can see at 4. As you can see there are few trees left. The deforestation in this area and elsewhere accelerated considerably with the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar and the decline of the electricity generating system. At about the same time paraffin (kerosene to the Americans) was subsidised and a lot of poorer people used it for lighting and cooking. That no longer being the case they resort to cutting down trees for fuel. It is illegal but the law is not enforced and of course the wood is free. There are moves afoot by various NGOs and tobacco companies (tobacco takes considerably heating to get cured) to address this deforestation problem but there will be quite a few years before the effect becomes noticeable.

The enlarged area at 4 shows what the bush looked like at 2 when I moved into this house.

It is disappearing very fast.

The enlargement at 3 shows what the bush must have been like before the land grab started in 2000 when the area was well maintained. The particular farmer who owned this land had game running on it – it has long all been “removed”. Paradoxically the more remote parts of the country where the commercial farms are now derelict are showing considerable bush regeneration.

5 is my lawn – or what remains of it. By the time the rains start in mid November (hopefully, nothing is certain in this part of the world, the weather included) there will be just dust and a few very desiccated grass blades. I just don’t have access to enough water to keep it going. Driving through some of the  Harare suburbs you wouldn’t think that there is a water crisis! Sprinklers abound for those who can afford to get boreholes drilled. There is plenty of water in the municipal reservoirs but little of it actually gets into town. It requires pumping you see and of course that requires electricity which is erratic to say the least and is not going to improve any time soon. There’s no money for that because we as a nation just don’t produce much of anything these days. A lot of households rely on water to be delivered which they then store in large plastic tanks.

There has to be some good news visible in this picture and there is; a bird at 6. I have no idea what it is and I didn’t even see it until I downloaded the picture from my camera. Birds still abound in Zimbabwe and chances are if you take a photo of some scenery there will be at least one in the picture!

Yes there are many problems in our everyday lives in Zimbabwe but that goes for just about anywhere else too. At least the currency we use is reasonably stable now. It should be – it is the US dollar! And whenever I get down about the future I sit on the verandah and take in the view and no, I don’t think I ever will get tired of it!

The art of science and original thought

23 04 2009

I have just been reading an article in a recent Scientific American “Does Dark Energy Really Exist?” (April 2009). It has been known for some time now that the universe is expanding at what appears to be an ever accelerating rate. There is a problem though; nobody knows what is driving the acceleration so it has been called dark energy. Despite the best and most expensive efforts of scientists worldwide, nobody can find this dark energy. So what the authors of this article (and others) have postulated is that dark energy does not exist; what scientists have seen as evidence for a uniform expansion of the universe is in fact something else. This is not the place for a physics discussion and anyway, the original does it much better. What does fascinate me about this paper is its original thought.

In my early days at university I was somewhat conservative. Arts did exist of course but that was for people who hadn’t discovered science, or even worse, wanted to do an easy degree. Fortunately we all mature a bit and by the end of my university education I was wondering why there wasn’t at least one course requirement in my curriculum for a more “abstract” subject; philosophy say. If science has a fault it is to encourage a very regimented way of thinking which of course leads to incremental progress but the true geniuses of this world have original thoughts and ideas and sometimes they don’t know what made them think that way. This sounds suspiciously like art.

I now have a fascination with art in its various forms. HIFA (www.hifa.co.zw) is coming up next week and I am involved as a “communications assistant” meaning I am required to write reviews, take photos, and help update the website. I am certainly not doing it for the pay which will cover my travel costs and a bit extra. I will certainly be fascinated by what I see and will marvel at the artistic thought process which is just so different from what I was taught.

At a HIFA some years back I went to see a contemporary dance show by a French dance school. The first half was pretty much standard contemporary dance (I love dance because it is something that I will never be able to do and hell, those girls have great legs!) but the second half was abstract. I think I was one of the few people in the audience who actually applauded at the end. It was brilliant; how DID they think of that? Walking out with the audience I heard people grumble that they didn’t understand it; it was rubbish. No, I said, it was not rubbish because you did not understand it. It was abstract – it was whatever you wanted it to be (Zimbabweans are notoriously narrow minded).

Perhaps this is the source of the frustration that I feel with religion; people are just not prepared to challenge the accepted doctrine – you cannot know the mind of God so you just accept it (there  is of course a paradox here; to be religious you MUST accept the doctrine otherwise there is no point). That to me is denying our very raison d’être. We are what we are because we are so intensely curious and prepared to challenge what we are often led to believe is the accepted explanation for what we see around us. And that is called science.