How does it feel?Bob Dylan
To be on your own
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone
Have you had a good pandemic?
I thought not. Other than Jeff Bezos and a few virologists, it is pretty hard to imagine anyone has actually benefited in any way from the last twelve catastrophic months. We galanthophiles at least have flowering plants to distract us from what is likely to be an unremittingly miserable winter. True, for the subset of galanthophiles for whom travel lies next to oxygen on the list of life’s non-negotiable ingredients, the consequences of the pandemic have been pretty grim. We are not, though, talking about a deep well of human suffering here. There’s me, obviously, and I can think of at least two others. That’s more of a puddle than a well and, even in my most solipsistic moments, I’m not sure I believe that ‘access to wild snowdrop populations’ is a worthy candidate for ratification by the UN as a fundamental human right. But it has been frustrating.
It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog, but that’s not because I lost interest in snowdrops. Au contraire mes amis.
Revolution Snowdrops started out as a doomed bid for redemption, disguised as a road trip, following the failure of my nursery, Evolution Plants. That failure upset some other people even more than it upset me. When, ill-advisedly, I posted on Facebook a picture of a biodiverse pile of ash that was all that remained of thousands of plants I’d been unable even to give away, one commentator responded ‘Burnt plants and burnt jobs at Evolution Plants’. Touché! I’ve subsequently left social media.
I had planned to try and see all the world’s snowdrop species in flower in a single season, starting in early autumn and continuing into late spring. It went better than I had any right to expect but the original goal slipped out of reach when I arrived in north west Turkey too late to see flowering Galanthus trojanus, having misjudged its flowering time by a couple of weeks.
Later in the year I didn’t quite get to a tentative site for Galanthus panjutinii in Abkhazia that I’d tried very hard to reach. That was 2016.
In the years since 2016, I’ve continued to travel, as often as possible, to study wild snowdrops. I have now seen all the taxa in flower, at least those that are currently recognised, except Galanthus alpinus var. bortkewitschianus, which I tried but failed to find on a trip to the Kamenka River in Kabardino-Balcaria, it’s only known site. It’s good to have a few unaccomplished goals left in life.
I’ve been asked occasionally whether I feel guilty about the carbon I burn on my travels. Several friends whom I respect, including one or two galanthophiles, have recently curtailed their own travel habits out of belated concern for the planet’s health. The short answer is that, yes, I feel guilty, but no, I’m not going to stop travelling…
If you really want to save the world then, unless you are a powerful and charismatic politician, the best way to contribute is to remove yourself from it, thereby avoiding consuming the non-renewable resources that you will otherwise burn before you die naturally. Yes you will, even if you recycle. An average human uses 79GJ of energy per year (1) (an average American uses five times that much), whereas an average chimpanzee uses roughly 0.27GJ per year (2), all of it from renewable resources.
Suicide is certainly less futile than, say, working as a conservation biologist, flying to the meetings known as ‘Conferences of the Parties’ to the Convention on Biological Diversity to agonise with other hand-wringing bureaucrats over how things seem to have gone backwards since the last CoP (3). I prefer regret about my weakness for travel to hypocrisy, of which anyone who consumes more resources than a chimpanzee and simultaneously claims to care about the planet is guilty.
In the few years I’ve been travelling to see snowdrops in the wild I’ve witnessed the extinction of one population destroyed by housing development, two by road widening and one by the construction of a dam.
Many other populations I know are threatened by agriculture or other development on their doorstep and I am sure that I will helplessly witness their destruction in years to come. So far as I know, these populations died unnoticed and unlamented by the governments of the countries in which they occurred. I visited them as they shrank and eventually vanished. So far as I can tell, no efforts were made to rescue any of these plants, before they were bulldozered. Had I intervened – which I did not – I would have been vulnerable to prosecution under CITES laws, reflecting an international treaty designed, perhaps even sincerely, to protect endangered animals that has the unintended consequence of facilitating the demise of some plant species.
I think it is tragic that snowdrop populations are going under the plough and the pickaxe, while the self-proclaimed defenders of biological diversity chatter at their conferences. To the extent that the chatterers have noticed me and my efforts to document snowdrop populations before they disappear for ever, they have explicitly identified me as an enemy, which I am not. Quoting something I’d written, Krigas et al. (2014), wrote ‘Using extreme language, one [former nurseryman] calls [the Convention on Biological Diversity] “a cretinous and self-defeating exercise in bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.”’ (4) Well, I couldn’t have put it better myself. Krigas and his colleagues are correct, of course, when they add ‘Whatever their opinions…nurseries cannot violate national laws of the countries from which plant material has originated, nor international treaties signed by the countries of origin but possibly not by their own’. While the legal argument has been won by those who think that nation states own and should jealously guard the biological resources located in their territories, I won’t be deterred from trying to record for posterity as much as possible of the natural variation in this genus before I am done.
One of the clearest findings of my early travels was something that I already sort of knew from my tentative previous forays into snowdrop territory. Snowdrops are extraordinarily variable both between and within populations but that variation is not random; it is structured. Populations close together are often more similar than those further apart, political boundaries notwithstanding. For example, the snowdrops on the Greek island of Chios (let’s call them Galanthus graecus) are more similar to those on the Karaburun peninsula in Turkey than they are to those on the Greek islands of Samos, a little way to the south or Lesbos, to the north.
The snowdrops in Turkish Thrace, snappily referred to as Galanthus x valentinei nothosubsp. subplicatus are closely related to the recently described Galanthus samothracicus, from the eponymous Greek island and to populations, which have previously incorrectly been ascribed to Galanthus nivalis, in Chalkidiki and in south eastern Bulgaria.
Discerning this structure, which is indifferent to international borders, and mapping it is the key to understanding the evolutionary history and current diversity of the genus.
Another finding was that some species, as currently understood, probably in fact comprise several separate lineages – call them species if you want, but please don’t call them subspecies – that can only be retrieved by a combination of very thorough fieldwork and molecular analysis, for which the funding really isn’t there. Galanthus reginae-olgae, for example, or plants that look like that species occur in a range of places that cannot have been linked by intermediate populations in the relevant past. What looks like one species is probably several. More on that in another post, I hope…
A third finding was that morphology isn’t always a good guide to the underlying diversity. Convergent evolution, hybridisation and the likely existence of cryptic species all muddy the waters. Who can say that Galanthus nivalis, the most recently evolved and most widespread of snowdrop species, which has contracted to and dispersed from refugia multiple times over many glacial cycles, is a single species? To be perfectly honest, what does that word even mean, in the context of snowdrops?
These findings have major implications for how snowdrop conservation ought to be approached. It is simply not enough to worry about conserving the 23 currently recognised species. We need to worry about – or at least acknowledge – the thousands of unique populations that are out there, many of them undocumented. The authors of traditional botanical monographs are not especially interested in describing the variation within and among populations. At one time I had imagined writing a new snowdrop monograph but now I aim to try to write a gentle natural history of the genus, focusing less on pointlessly arguing over species boundaries and the status of synonyms and more on celebrating the diversity in these lovely little white plants. First we need to know where they are and what they look like. If you think this sounds like the perfect excuse for me to spend several more years on my hands and knees, taking photographs in the mountains, then you are getting to know me quite well.
In late January and early February of this year, I went to Italy to look for populations of Galanthus reginae-olgae, which is more widespread in that country than has formerly been recognised.
When I came back I was sick as a dog for about a week, so sick that I took to my bed and didn’t drink any wine for four days. When I felt better I went to Skyros, in the Aegean, to see Galanthus ikariae. I joked at the time with my family that perhaps I was patient zero in The Netherlands for COVID-19 but it now seems that it had already been here for some months, unnoticed and ignored.
Then came the pandemic and the travel restrictions that followed. When some European countries, desperate for tourist revenues, opened their borders in the summer I fled to Greece for a fortnight. Responsible? No. Necessary? Yes. I sat on the sea shore, staring up at the Taygetos Mountains from Kardamyli, eating plates of squid and drinking cold red wine, while the snowdrops slumbered through their summer dormancy.
As autumn approached, the travel corridor remained open. I booked another two weeks at my favourite hotel in the world, the Mazaraki Guesthouse at Mystras, above the plain of Sparta. I have stayed there in each of the last six years and have slowly gotten to know the network of tiny roads that thread the mountains, a spider’s web of tracks that can transport you virtually anywhere, if you can find a car hire company that hasn’t yet blacklisted you.
The melancholy experience of hearing one’s own echoing footsteps while walking through a virtually deserted airport terminal is one I hope not to repeat too often. I adore airports. The delicious scent of kerosene, the olfactory signal of imminent adventure, has largely vanished with air conditioning but there is still the intoxicating bustle of strangers going places, mixing in shops and bars, departure boards advertising destinations you’ll never have time to see, the pleasure of drinking a cold beer while watching aircraft land and take off and the sweet anticipation of soon being elsewhere.
The drive from Athens to Sparta takes, these days, less than three hours on motorways that carve ugly gashes in the limestone landscape visible, if not from space, then certainly from the peaks of the Taygetos. It would be even quicker, were it not for the regular toll booths, staffed by actual human beings, collecting a couple of Euros at a time from vehicles flowing in the thin stream of pandemic traffic. The toll collectors are unfailingly polite. ‘Yassas’ – hello – they say, usually with a smile, for the thousandth time that day.
Arriving in the mountains not long before dusk, I stopped at a place I have visited often to see snowdrops, before going on to my hotel.
It is hard to describe the feelings I experience – what are they exactly? – when I walk into a population of snowdrops, especially after a long absence. Joy, certainly but, deeper than that, profound contentment. My first psychiatrist diagnosed anhedonia but he was mistaken; he never saw me in a snowdrop population. But beyond the emotional response a deep fascination bubbles up. What will I see today that is beyond my current experience? How are these plants that I am seeing different to others that I have seen nearby? They must be related to one another but how distantly? If I followed this river to its source and then down again, via another channel, would the snowdrops be different there? Here’s a plant with green outer segments and there’s a poculiform. Why are they here but not in the next population along? The plants here are flowering now, whereas others higher up are already going over. What’s the explanation?
Over the next few days I explored the mountains, visiting places where I knew I would find snowdrops and seeking out new populations. There are two things about this hobby that give me particular satisfaction. One is finding unique plants: the one-in-a-hundred-thousand mutant that is so extraordinarily beautiful that it stops you in your tracks.
The other is discovering ‘new’ populations. The scare quotes indicate that, obviously, these are not real discoveries. While I try to look in places that seem plausible, people who live locally must know of these plants already. They are often not particularly interested in them, however, and the records have certainly never made their way into the scientific literature. I have a huge Google Maps database of snowdrop locations that I have personally verified, many more literature records that I want to check out and guesses that I’d like to explore. I get a little hit from adding each green, verified dot to the map, perhaps similar to the one I used to get from a ‘Like’ on Facebook.
Since I was an undergraduate, where my cleverest friend was a student of English Literature, I’ve felt that, to quote the late Peter Medawar, scientists ‘have something to be clever about’ and that science offers a more reliable route to the truth than art. But, if you’re looking for a quote to illustrate a truth, poets are still the go-to resource. Bob Dylan deserved his Nobel Prize in literature at least as much as Abiy Ahmed deserved his, for peace and it is to Dylan I turn when trying to describe: my relationships (I’m not the one you want, babe/I will only let you down); despair (Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear/It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there); politics (Idiot wind/Blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot, babe); exile (Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line/Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine); hope (But me, I’m still on the road/Heading for another joint) and regret (Sundown, yellow moon/I replay the past/I know every scene by heart/They all went by so fast).
I even shoehorned Dylan into a sophomoric finals essay on seed dispersal ecology (‘The answer, my friend is blowin’ in the wind’, of course). I was playing Dylan songs on Spotify as I sat in my room at the Mazaraki Guesthouse, reviewing photographs from another wonderful day in the field. The rhetorical question he posed in the lines quoted at the head of this post seemed aimed at me directly. I suppose that’s what great writers do? While I was in Greece, I signed a contract to rent a flat in The Hague where I would live alone after my return to The Netherlands, having failed my wife and children, again. How does it feel to be on my own, without a home? Let me get back to you on that.
Next door to the Mazaraki Guesthouse are a couple of great restaurants. One is posher that the other but I like them equally. I walked into the posh place a couple of years ago, with my son and an old friend to be greeted by astonished glances from one table and the exclamation ‘You are our king!’ My son was impressed. It turns out that I look a bit like the Dutch king and that this was far from a compliment. I had my most enjoyable dinner of this trip in the other place, where it is impossible to spend more than €20 per head, no matter how much you drink, eat and tip. A delegation from the local city council had come for a party and they were dancing between the tables and singing as I ate chicken and beans. No-one was wearing masks; everyone was hugging and kissing; the chicken was seriously delicious; I felt, as I always do, at ease in company, but alone.
It wasn’t to last. That evening, Dimitra, one of the lovely managers of the guesthouse, mournfully told me, blinking and agitatedly pushing her glasses further up her nose, that the Greek government had decided to impose a full lockdown a few days hence. I would have to leave, along with all other tourists. Abandoning my plans to explore the western side of the Taygetos in the coming week, I booked an expensive last minute flight and flew back to The Netherlands. I will miss the Taygetos, until I return.
Some biologists – me, for example – have a serious case of physics envy. Many of us went into biology partly because we weren’t smart enough to be physicists (and some of us compounded the ignominy by subsequently leaving biology because we couldn’t manage the rather basic maths). So, writing with the full authority of a failed soft scientist, let me assure you that, if you want to understand the universe, you can safely ignore relativity, quantum mechanics, fluid dynamics and gearing ratios and, instead, focus on the second law of thermodynamics, the most fundamental law in all of physics.
As Lord Kelvin pithily put it ‘It is impossible for a self-acting machine, unaided by any external agency, to convey heat from one body to another at a higher temperature.’ What he was trying to say was ‘shit happens’. It is an ineluctable consequence of the fact that the universe comprises particles, moving randomly and bouncing off one another, that there are vastly more ways in which things can go wrong than ways in which they can go right. This law explains all our sorrows but also all our joys. It seems to rule out free will – choice – as anything but an illusion. I can’t presently think of any more convincing explanation for how I got from there to here. Suggestions on a postcard?
It’s perhaps the most marvellous thing about natural selection that it has built machines that temporarily reverse or at least constrain entropy. Machines like you and me. If it’s OK with the second law, I’ll continue chasing snowdrops until the sun finally sets.
(2) Conklinn-Brittain, N., et al. “Energy Intake by Wild Chimpanzees and Orangutans: Methodological Considerations and a Preliminary Comparison.” Feeding Ecology in Apes and Other Primates. Ecological, Physical and Behavioural Aspects., edited by Gottfried Hohmann et al., Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 445–472.
(3) I have nothing against conservation biologists. Two of my oldest and closest friends are professional conservation biologists, who work tirelessly on the front lines, attempting to do something. What frustrates me is that, every few years, dozens of the world’s most prominent conservationists get together and publish a paper in a prestigious journal, documenting in lavish detail how badly the world is doing at implementing goals it had set itself at CBD meetings. Having mournfully concluded that current methods are not working, the authors then double down, arguing that we should do even more of the same things that they’ve just demonstrated have failed in the past. This comes close to one definition of insanity, usually attributed to Einstein: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Again, I have nothing against any of these authors. Their motives are unimpeachable. I was a contemporary at university with the lead author of one of the papers and know several others. He and I competed to get off with the same girl on a beach south of Sydney, on New Year’s Eve 2000. We had both flown several thousand miles just to be at that party, because we could. I don’t know whether he succeeded, but I failed. We shared teachers and seminars and we largely agree about the catastrophic consequences of biodiversity loss. They are much better scientists than I ever was. They are so deeply invested, however, in the current structure of international treaties and national laws that it would amount to professional suicide to admit that the whole system is rotten. Only outsiders, without a career to put on the line, can say that the emperor is naked. No doubt some will think I am attacking a straw man here, so I invite you, if interested, to read the papers and judge for yourselves.
Butchart, S. H. M., et al. (2010). “Global Biodiversity: Indicators of Recent Declines.” Science 328(5982): 1164-1168.
Tittensor, D. P., et al. (2014). “A mid-term analysis of progress toward international biodiversity targets.” Science 346(6206): 241-244.
(4) Krigas, N., et al. (2014). “The Electronic Trade in Greek Endemic Plants: Biodiversity, Commercial and Legal Aspects.” Economic Botany 68(1): 85-95.