Category Archives: communication

The Ancestor’s Trail 2014

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.

Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT.  This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.

starting point
The field in which we began our walk. Each footstep along the trail took us away (metaphorically speaking, that is) from the point at which humans became a separate species, and towards the earliest form of life on Earth.
road ahead
Because the trail is arranged such that you are metaphorically walking backwards in time towards the first living organism on Earth, the view ahead may show you your own future, but it simultaneously shows you your evolutionary past.

Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).

beneath the oak
This was one of our first stops of the day; I believe we were still on the primate branch of the family tree at this point.

Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:

beeches
If you think those trees look a bit manicured, you’re right; Epping Forest is known for its long history of coppicing, pollarding, and other forms of arboreal manipulation.

We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.

cloudy sky
One of many unused fields we passed during our long walk

One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.

ARW
He walked the whole 12.5 miles in costume, but not always in character.

My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.

bridleway
We weren’t the only ones out and about on the trails; we also passed equestrians, joggers, bikers, hikers, and dog-walkers.
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I'm sure is its raison d'être
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I’m sure is its raison d’être.
grassy field
This is my favorite photograph of the day. I love the pale golden color of the grasses, and their wispy texture makes the hills look soft and velvety. (They weren’t; they were actually a bit scratchy.)

If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.

Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
2014-09-06 06.03.36
Sasha and I discuss…something, while journalist Urs Willmann (behind me in the black t-shirt) interviews a trail participant.
AT_sitting
After a long day of walking, I rest my feet with some of my fellow pilgrims. This image gives you a particularly good view of my Darwin-riding-an-archaeopteryx t-shirt (by Stated Clearly), which I thought was an especially relevant fashion statement given the theme of the day.
CK Ancestor's Trail
I find something amusing. Or maybe I’m just thinking about how awesome my t-shirt is.

I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.

That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:

Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.
Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.

We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.

the band
We were coming from the right-hand side of this picture and heading towards the left. Just before crossing over this bridge, I had the good luck of spotting a great crested grebe–my first-ever sighting of the species!

Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.

As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:

burrs
A little souvenir from the Trail

Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted  in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:

mailbox 2

mailbox plaque

I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.

Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.

bread bites
Garlic + butter + bread = happiness on a plate

Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.

cait food
My meatballs…
Sasha food
…and Sasha’s stroganoff

Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.

dessert
Our hard-earned (one might even say…just?) desserts

Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.

The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.

Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.

Taking a walk on the Wild Side: My adventures in radio

I have found myself doing a lot of unexpected things over the years–singing in an a capella group, for example, and moving to England–but one thing I certainly never anticipated was having my own radio show.

My father is a radio journalist, so perhaps I should have seen this coming. When I was younger, I used to spend quite a lot of time at his office, where I would sit in the recording studio and pretend to be on air. I remember being particularly enthralled with the act of erasing old broadcasts from previously used tape cartridges. I also recall learning how to sort through old press releases and decide which ones should be broadcasted for a second day, and which should be tossed. I was even on air a couple of times–once because I won some sort of writing contest and was recorded reading my piece aloud, and another time because my dad had recorded me playing piano so that he could use the clip as “natural sound” in the background of a piece. With that kind of history, I was practically destined to grow up and become a radio personality.

The thing is, pretty much everything about radio broadcasting goes against my natural inclinations. I dislike speaking extemporaneously because, when I do, I say unbelievably stupid things. I’m not funny. I am not very good at interviewing or chatting with people. I can’t juggle too many things at once, so I don’t feel comfortable switching between CDs and microphones or doing fancy things with the sound. Really, the only thing I’ve got going for me is the fact that I can’t stand the idea of avoiding something because it scares me–well, that and the skill of being able to speak at length about things even when I don’t precisely know what I’m talking about.

So how in the world did I end up hosting my own radio show? It was suggested by a colleague at the University of Exeter who knew about my interest in science outreach. He had done some guest spots on some previous science-themed broadcasts at our local station, The Source 96.1 FM, so he knew the people in charge and had an inkling that they might want to host a show devoted to science. Before I could think twice and say no, he’d sent an e-mail to the Powers That Be, and I found myself signed up for a training day.

This is what I found when I arrived at The Source for my introduction to the studio (although this particular photo was taken later–station manager Matthew Rogers wasn’t picnicking outside on that first day). The mobile office units were donated to the station by construction companies at the University of Exeter; they allowed Source to move out of their quarters at the University College Falmouth and exist independently. While they may not look too exciting from the outside, they were a pretty big step up for the radio station; besides, the magic results from what happens within.

This is the main studio, from which the majority of shows are broadcasted; there is also a smaller second studio that is mostly used for pre-recording (on the rare occasions when it is necessary). On the training day, I was one of 4 people who showed up to the station to find out about possibly getting a show. We heard a little bit about Source’s origins and scope, then were quickly ushered into the studio to get our first lesson on how to work the equipment. That was when I realized that thinking about having a radio show is a very different thing from actually having a radio show; staring down a microphone and resting your hands on the soundboard very much help turn a mere concept into a reality.

I tried to drag my feet as much as possible, but after a couple of follow-up training sessions, there was not much more I could learn about operating the soundboard–basically, you play a song by pushing up one switch and pulling down another, then do the reverse in order to go back to talking. Once I had that mastered, I really had no excuses to put off my first show any longer.

To make things easy on myself, I decided that the theme of my first broadcast would be the topic on which I am (theoretically) most expert: birdsong. Conveniently, I was also in the midst of writing a magazine article on that very same idea, so I was able to use the written piece as a framework for the oral version of the presentation. The one last hurdle I had to clear prior to the first episode was coming up with a name for my show. I toyed with the idea of calling it “Anthrophysis” in honor of my science blog of the same name, but I didn’t want to restrict my scope; “anthrophysis” loosely means “humans” and “nature,” and I anticipated plenty of times when I’d want to talk about the latter without trying to connect it to the former. I’m not sure where my inspiration came from, but I realized that at some point I had started thinking of my show as the “Wild Side,” and that is the name that ultimately stuck.

I was pretty terrified on the day of my first broadcast, to the point where I was physically ill the night before and the entire day of the show. Ditto the next week and the week after that…in fact, things didn’t start getting any easier until my 5th or 6th episode. You would think that after all these years of performing in front of people, it wouldn’t bother me any more, but it still does. It doesn’t matter whether I’m playing an instrument, singing, acting, running a race, giving a lecture, or, now, hosting a radio show; I still feel absolutely miserable. It’s an especially weird reaction to broadcasting because, as far as I can see from my position in the studio, I am completely alone; I’m basically sitting in a room just talking to myself. My mind, however, is aware that there is (potentially) an audience out there, so I still get the nervous adrenaline rush and all the fun side effects that come with it.

One of the things I do to minimize the stress is make my shows as simple as possible. Eventually I may do “fancy” things such as taking calls and interviewing guests, but for now I essentially do a lecture not unlike one I might give to students at the university–only in this case I take occasional breaks to play music. I started off discussing topics for which I already had presentations prepared and/or research compiled, including animal communication, deception in the animal kingdom, and the ecology of urban environments. After that, I had to step out into the great unknown and talk about things that I’d only just researched during the week prior to my show. That was a nerve-wracking transition to make, because I hate saying anything that I am not 100% sure of, and for me, being 100% sure requires doing months and months of reading. Each week, I type out notes that I can use as an intellectual crutch to get me through the broadcast. I don’t read them out like a manuscript, because I’m pretty sure that would bore listeners stiff. I do, however, use them to make sure I discuss things in the right order, say the correct names and dates, and know when to break for songs.

The songs themselves are probably the most fun thing about doing the broadcasts. I have a truly massive music collection, including lots of stuff that I acquired simply because I found it odd or amusing. I now finally have a reason to own all of this music. I prefer to choose songs that refer to the overall theme of each week’s broadcast–for the birdsong week, for instance, I chose songs with “bird” in the title or, where necessary, the name of a particular bird (“dove,” “eagle,” etc.). Occasionally that is difficult to do, and I have to choose songs that express the different topics or themes I discuss throughout the broadcast. That is what I had to do for my show on science history, because, as it turns out, there aren’t lots of songs with “history” in the title.

If there is anything that could be considered my broadcasting kryptonite, it is distracting bird activity outside the studio window. I have had to train myself to ignore all the little house sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, and blackbirds that come and go while I am on air. There was one early episode during which I realized that I’d completely zoned out for about 5 minutes–while talking–because I was watching the birds outside. Another thing I find totally distracting is the sound of my own voice. Frankly, I’m not really sure why I even wear headphones while I’m in the studio, since I have the volume turned down so low that the speakers are basically not transmitting any sound into my ears.

Listeners (again, assuming there are any other than my family) may not be aware of too many obvious differences between my first and most recent shows, but I certainly feel different. Since I first went on air, I have become much more comfortable with the whole broadcasting process, from the rushed turnover between shows to adjusting volume levels while talking to shrugging off the errors I make while speaking. Much of this is thanks to studio manager Jerry Padfield, who has coached me from Day 1. I still have a long way to go, but I am no longer feeling as much pressure to be perfect all the time (if only I could apply this same attitude to the rest of my life!). I have even relaxed enough to start taking a video camera in to record my episodes for later uploading to YouTube.

Of course, the purpose of the show is not to expand my horizons or make me popular or get me a job with the BBC (all of which, however, are fine by me!), but to teach people about science. While I have absolutely no idea whether it is succeeding at that goal, I have my fingers crossed; if only one person learns one thing each week, I have succeeded. I’d also be happy to learn that someone discovered a new musician thanks to the songs I play. (That possibility, incidentally, is one of the things that first attracted my father to radio.) If nothing else, though, I’ve had the chance to meet new people, learn new skills, conquer old fears, and gain a tiny bit of perspective on what my dad has been doing every weekday for the past 30 years. I may not get paid the big bucks for hosting “Wild Side” (or, in fact, any bucks at all), but those achievements are reward enough.


If you want to hear “Wild Side,” tune in to Cornwall’s The Source 96.1 FM from 1-2 PM GMT every Wednesday (over the airwaves or online). Podcasting is coming soon, either via The Source or my own website. You can also visit the latter to access YouTube links to episodes 8 (“A Brief History of Science”) and 9 (“The Science of Bird Migration”).