Portrait of a Wild Postcard Artist, Madagascar

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Who are those determined young artists going for gold in the Wild Postcard Project art competitions? Meet Solo*, a 13-year-old winner from Sainte Luce, Madagascar.

Solo is one of those children that stand out from the class because of the bright light of their potential and determination. Studious and artistic, he is also, secretly, the true ring leader of his friends, a veritable Malagasy Bash Street Kids. Once I saw them giddily clambering up and down a tree to pick flowers full of delicious nectar. A member of the gang snatched a flower from the hands of a child who was unable to climb the tree. Solo scolded the thief, and climbed the tree a second time to get his friend a new flower.

The group has a mischievous second-in-command who leads the group’s clamorous messing sessions, but when Solo decides that enough is enough and the SEED Madagascar conservation team are attempting to teach the hundred-plus members of Club Atsatsaky, he only has to say the word and they will settle down in their seats quietly. In 2011, I asked him when he would run for the position of Chef de Quartier (similar to a local TD or the village mayor), and he said, “Tomorrow!” In 2013, he replied, “In fifty years.” This time, he says, “I don’t know.”

Three years have passed since I worked as a conservation research assistant and environmental educator in Sainte Luce with SEED Madagascar. Last month I returned, with fellow SEED veterans Conor Friel and Daniel Wood, to run the Wild Postcard Project with Club Atsatsaky. This biodiversity themed art competition, created by fellow Biodiversity and Conservation MSc graduates Eileen Diskin and Angela Stevenson, has already been a huge success in Ireland and the Philippines. It is currently open for submissions in British Columbia and will run again in Ireland this spring. The winning entries are transformed into postcards which promote local biodiversity all around the world. The scaled down version we carried out in Sainte Luce aimed to encourage the children to celebrate their unique local wildlife (of which they are already very proud) and produce postcards for SEED to sell to volunteers and tourists in Fort Dauphin.

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An artist concentrates deeply on his red-collared brown lemur.

Since I left the region in 2014, Solo and his family have moved to another village. It is accessible only by foot from Mahatalaky, the nearest market town, a three-hour walk to Sainte Luce. But news of the Wild Postcard Project art competition travelled fast. The opportunity to use nice art materials and win a prize from andafy (abroad) was an exciting prospect, and Solo made the long journey from his new home to Sainte Luce just to take part!

Because of the scarcity of art materials in the three hamlets of Sainte Luce, we ran the competition a little differently from other Wild Postcard Project host locations. The conservation club meets twice a week – once in Ambandrika and once in Manafiafy. We took advantage of the reliability of turn out to these club meetings to run two drawing sessions, one in each location, providing pencils, oil pastels and watercolours for the children to use. Strategically placed posters boosted numbers to at least 150 children per session. Each child was allowed to submit two pieces, and in the end we received 573 entries!

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Drawing is a spectator sport in Sainte Luce!

Solo’s approach was contemplative and methodical. He stayed in the classroom long after the others had left in order to perfect his masterpiece. His hard work paid off. His drawing was one of the ten artworks chosen to become postcard designs. Although I admit this kid is one of my heroes, I can’t be accused of favouritism, as I remained quiet while the other 6 members of the judging panel voted unanimously for his work! Not all choices were as easy to make, however. Trying to spread the winnings out across all three hamlets in Sainte Luce, get some semblance of gender and age balance, while ensuring that the winning drawings would look good on a postcard was tough, emotional work and sometimes ruthless out of necessity!

Each winner received a beautiful certificate, a set of Wild Postcards from the Irish competition, a bar of chocolate and a pencil or pen. The first winner to receive his prize couldn’t believe that all of these things were for him. He picked one item from the Conservation Programme coordinator’s hands, then a second, then the whole lot had to be forcibly piled into his little nine-year-old arms!

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The SEED Conservation Programme team with some of our talented winners!

Because of my obsession with creepy crawlies, I insisted that we have a special invertebrates category. The winner drew an almost anatomically perfect spiny lobster, a species of major economical importance to Sainte Luce and the subject of one of SEED Madagascar’s sustainable livelihoods schemes, Project Oratsimba. He beamed with joy on receiving his award. We later learnt from his proud mother that he has been fantastic at art since he was tiny. Official recognition of his skills was a really big deal to him. Malagasy kids love a good certificate!

Solo accepted his prize with a serious, dignified air, bordering on aloofness. These days he has a look of someone who has spent more time loitering, bored and unchallenged, than usual. It turns out he has completed primary school but his parents can’t afford the 40,000 Ariary (10 euro) per year for his secondary school education and the substantial cost of food, clothes and school supplies that parents everywhere must be all too familiar with. He has been out of school for a year. My heart sank on hearing this, knowing that another of my bright, determined students recently failed his high school exams because of the challenges of returning to the education system after two years of absence.

The sometimes crushing sense of guilt and futility is one of the hardest things about working in a developing country, and also about not working there anymore. Why wasn’t I there? How did I let this happen?

It’s important to remember the bigger picture and not carry more than your fair share of the responsibility. Madagascar is vastly rich in mineral and natural wealth. The government could afford to pay its teachers properly, and could afford to provide free education to all of its children, if it felt like it (while larger than France, Madagascar’s former colonial power, the island is relatively sparsely populated – only 26 million compared to France’s 66.9 million). Instead, corrupt politicians pocket what mining companies pay them and allow them to plunder Madagascar’s irreplaceable wildlife – its most valuable and sustainable resource and its best chance at longterm prosperity.

On returning to Sainte Luce, I had begun to doubt that flying halfway across the world to run an art competition could benefit such a poor village in any way. How frivolous, how deluded I had been. But the look on the children’s faces as they drew and received their prizes diffused some of those feelings. Certainly, they need more nutritious food; protection against malaria and worms; better education, transport and healthcare; sustainable incomes for their parents. But, just like kids anywhere, they also need pride and confidence in their talents and knowledge. They need fun and play and outlets for creative expression. And in this current, unscientific climate, all generations need to be equipped with an understanding and appreciation of their environment.

In Sainte Luce, embroidery, weaving and ecotourism guiding are rapidly becoming significant sources of income. They enable fishermen to remain at home on dangerous stormy days, knowing that their children won’t go hungry as a result. In that context, drawing, colour theory and knowing the names of local wild animals become life-saving skills.

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Raising a glass of Bonbon Anglais to the new members of the Stitch embroidery cooperative.

Before I left Sainte Luce again (heart torn out for a third time), I commissioned some of Solo’s drawings to send to a friend, another one of his fans. He presented them to me with his serious Chef de Quartier face on. Then I spotted a glimmer of his former glee and bashfulness, as he curled his chin into his chest, smiling, when I handed him my shabby old watercolours to keep.  A good Malagasy friend, a dedicated teacher-and-guide-and-reptile-and-amphibian-expert-extraordinaire, has offered to find out about his family’s circumstances and work out how we can help with his education.

The Wild Postcards of Sainte Luce, Madagascar, will soon be available for purchase on my Etsy page, through the Wild Postcard Project website, and from SEED Madagascar in Fort Dauphin. All proceeds will go to SEED Madagascar’s environmental projects, including the conservation club itself. I’ll keep you posted.

*I have changed this name to protect this family’s privacy. Solo is a common name in Madagascar meaning “replacement”, as in “we have lost one child but have been blessed with another”.

 

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What Do You Do? 2017 – 2018

Extracts from a year in the life of a Creative Entomologist.

In 2017 I made probably the most difficult decision of my life to date, if indeed it really was a decision when it came down to it. Having salvaged one of my longest-standing, most beautiful friendships from the rubble, it feels…hmm…not as though anything is possible, but that something worthwhile is always possible.

I received an important piece of wisdom at the time: Sometimes there is no good or bad decision, there is only the one that you make. The first time I volunteered in Madagascar, I learnt something similar. You commit to that spot on the far side of the river and you leap. That’s how you move through the forest.

After that cryptic introduction, let me tell you about some of the work-related leaps I made in 2017, and how they will shape the coming year of Creative Entomology for better or for worse.


Next week I’m returning to my favourite village in Madagascar to carry out the Wild Postcard Project with SEED Madagascar! I’ll spend four weeks there, running an art competition to produce Sainte-Luce-wildlife-themed postcards for the charity to sell to support their valuable work in the area. There will of course be a special insects/invertebrates category! I’m eager to work out how many postcards I should print – please contact me on Facebook if you would like to register your interest in buying a pack or donate towards the costs of art materials, prizes and printing.

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Club Atsatsaky with butterflies for Sainte Luce’s World Environment Day festival 2011

Upon my return in mid-February, I will be available to lead bug workshops and nature outings for a primary school near you (if you live in the greater Dublin area), subsidised by the Heritage Council! That’s because I’ve been chosen for the Heritage in Schools panel 2018 – 2020!

It’s appropriate that I’m returning to Madagascar with my artist’s hat on, because 2017 was the year I really got my art buzz back, on the inspirational Bee Time residency at Emerson College. It opened my eyes to our complicated relationship with the honey bee and the importance of creating art with the communities in which we live. I made a bee line for the Bee Time HQ in Spain later in the year, visiting the land which the beetimers are healing for the bees, and becoming pleasantly embroiled in some plotting to bring a Bee Time residency to Ireland…

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Insect walk for the Bee Time exhibition at Emerson College, East Sussex

Last year I also applied for a pollinator art commission from Laois and Offaly County Councils. Didn’t get it. Made the art anyway. My video collaboration with the public in Laois and Dublin, More than Bees: Lesser Known Tips for Pollinator Conservation, was screened in Dunamaise Arts Centre during Heritage Week, thanks to the Laois Heritage Officer Catherine Casey. I also made some lovely beekeeper friends!

2017 saw the launch of my first solo exhibition, BUGONIA, built around the prints, paintings, and sound pieces I created in those two fruitful weeks at Bee Time, and hosted by Bí URBAN in Stoneybatter. What a calm yet thought-provoking space Kaethe Burt O’Dea has created! I’m excited to get involved in her Lifeline Project in 2018. The aim is “to create a flow of biodiversity from the Botanic Gardens to the Liffey as a living laboratory where the citizens of Dublin’s Northwest Inner city can map and measure the value of re-partnering with nature in the urban environment.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, and for Remembrance Day for Lost Species, I held a pollinator video workshop and a poetry and music evening at St. Michan’s Church, generously supported by Phibsboro Tidy Towns and Church of Ireland. A poetry competition and open call for musicians for the pollinator event led to many interesting international connections with insect poets and bug festival organisers! Opportunities are sticking to me like flies to fly paper! Which reminds me of another piece of wisdom I’ve been keeping close at hand this past year:

The amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you’re passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated.

Jason C. Roberts

My volunteer role as intercultural workshops coordinator with Discovery Gospel Choir brought me to Hatch Hall direct provision centre. I effectively communicated what I’m passionate about to the centre’s management and I was invited to run two chaotic creative entomology workshops with some amazing children. We created a “music video” for the song Inchworm, which featured Geometrid moths and their loopy caterpillars!

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Some colourful fun for kids stuck in the mind-numbing system of direct provision

My most unusual work location this year was probably at the side of a road in Terenure. My Dublin Canvas painting of Staphylinus dimidiaticornis, a rove beetle of wet grasslands and fens, has been popular with the Instagrammers of South Dublin, where I continue to carry out insect surveys for the County Council’s Heritage Officer, Rosaleen Dwyer.

I published a short note (my first!) with my entomological hero Roy Anderson and Laila Higgins in the Irish Naturalists’ Journal, about a ground beetle we found along the Dodder: The status of Trechus subnotatus (Dejean) (Coleoptera: Carabidae) in Ireland, with a new site in the Dublin area.

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Catchin’ grasshoppers with my wonderful intern-for-the-day Tyler. Want to volunteer in 2018?

I look back at the post I wrote about my fibromyalgia in 2016 and wonder how I’ve managed to hurtle through so many bizarre and exciting projects and experiences in the last year, under a job title I invented for myself, during a really difficult period of personal change, without collapsing. Two things were key to this being possible:

  1. I learnt to ask for help. And friends, family, choir mates and people who had never met me before gave it in abundance. The term ‘sole trader’ is misleading – it takes a village to raise a business!
  2. I learnt to embrace anger as a powerful force for change, put it into physical action, and it freed up so much energy. Anger, like pain, is just a feeling telling you that something needs to change. Listen to it.

Let the raging fire in your belly propel you forward in 2018. Put on some red boots. Practice saying “yes” and “no” and “help!” in a loud, clear voice. Kick through your inhibitions and frustrations. Imagine yourself standing in your favourite habitat, in peak bug-spotting form. Leap over that river and march right up to what makes you happy. You will find something very worthwhile there.

Follow the Nectar: Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote about plants at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland which would be pollinated by beetles, geckos and lemurs in their natural habitats. There were too many fun facts to fit into one post! Here are a few more plants which deserved a special mention…

Many of the orchids in the palm house were in bloom when my Dad and I visited at the end of February. Each one is perfectly evolved for pollinator-specific relationships. They have landing platforms for bees, pungent odours to attract flies, or they imitate insects like our own native bee orchid.

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A real stinker of an orchid with some Spanish moss.

This is where the National Botanic Gardens boasts another pollination wonder from Madagascar – Angraecum sesquipedale. In 1862, Darwin theorised that this long-nectaried orchid could only be pollinated by a moth with an equally long proboscis, which would have co-evolved with the plant. In 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin passed away, that very moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta) was found in Madagascar.

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Darwin’s orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale.

Finally, we were treated to some real pollination in action. We spotted a queen Bombus terrestris/lucorum fuelling up on the flowers of a Pieris sp.

Can you?

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Spot the bee!

Queen bees emerge early to begin searching for nest sites in places such as the lovely untidy, tussocky bases of hedgerows. Early flowering plants are essential to their survival, so let those dandelions and other “weeds” bloom! Don’t mow, let it grow!

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When the gecko’s away, the ants will play! Nesocodon mauritianus which I mentioned in Follow the Nectar: Part 1

 

 

Follow the Nectar: Part 1

My dad and I were late season visitors to the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland’s Hidden February Blossoms tour at the very end of last month. Despite our tardiness, the tour guide diligently sought out each and every plant species that was still in flower, and had something equally fascinating to say about every non-blooming thing in between.

As someone who gets a kick out of plant-animal interactions, all my favourite facts were about pollination. Did you know that Magnolia is such an ancient plant it predates the evolution of bees, and is pollinated by a wide range of beetle species instead? Pollination researcher  describes the relationship perfectly:

“Beetles are very clumsy at their task; sometimes they get carried away and eat parts of the flowers along with the pollen they find there. Their mouth parts are made for chewing…so they can’t be blamed for their sloppiness. The flowers, in turn, are adapted to this rough treatment…”

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Magnolia trees at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, looking suitably wintry.

The excitement on my face following this revelation ensured that the subject matter of our tour veered towards pollination as much as towards the original theme of winter flowers!

Moving along into the curvilinear range, designed by Robert Turner and constructed in a mere quarter of a century, we were introduced to the rare Nesocodon mauritianus. Its blue, bell-shaped flowers drip with nectar as orange as cough-syrup. The pollination of this species remained a mystery until 2006 when researchers discovered that two other plants with coloured nectar on its island home of Mauritius were pollinated by Phelsuma day geckos. Hansen, Beer and Müller (2006) demonstrated that Phelsuma ornata geckos prefer coloured nectar to clear nectar (which most other flowers contain).

“In flowering plants, coloured nectar could additionally function as an honest signal that allows pollinators to assert the presence and judge the size of a reward prior to flower visitation, and to adjust their behaviour accordingly, leading to increased pollinator efficiency.”

In other words, coloured nectar allows the geckos to spot and choose their lunch and tells them where to pay. But not all geckos are such honest nectar customers. Here is a paper featuring stunning shots of a Phelsuma stealing nectar from mangrove flowers in Madagascar, bypassing the pollen entirely! Unlike Nesocodon mauritianus, the mangrove Sonneratia alba has white flowers which bloom at night so it can also attract the more helpful bats and moths.

I can’t mention day geckos without showing you a photo of Phelsuma antanosy, a species I was researching with SEED Madagascar. I have observed them licking clear nectar from small flowers. I wonder how useful they were being in terms of pollen transportation!

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Phelsuma antanosy, a critically endangered day gecko, endemic to Madagascar.

After paying homage to the rhododendrons, azalias, andromedas and witch hazel, all brightening up wintry grey Ireland with their dazzling colours, we entered the palm house. And there stood the plant which takes me back to Madagascar most nostalgically of all. The Traveller’s Palm.

Cue the compulsory discussion about the origin of its common name: Stab it and out flows water to quench your thirst on a long journey. It might be stagnant and full of bugs, but as a last resort it could probably save you from death by dehydration. You can also use its leaves as an umbrella or a parasol, or for covering food on the long journey from the mountains to the market. The leaves grow east to west so you can use them like a compass. Or is it north to south? Or do they actually at all? Because I’ve seen them do both, so maybe I’ve misunderstood something, but I would not like to count on it if I was lost in the bush. This is where the facts always start to become a bit alternative. Can anyone shed light on this mystery?

Our guide then revealed the pollinators of the Traveller’s Palm: lemurs! The plant co-evolved with ruffed lemurs, whose fluffy faces make the perfect pollen brush! How I lived in Madagascar for 16 months without learning this is a mystery. Too busy with my nose in the undergrowth looking for insects and frogs, perhaps!

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Ravenala madagascariensis, the Traveller’s Palm, at Nahampoana near Fort Dauphin.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madagascar No.3

Adult Lanternfly
Adult lanternfly in Manafiafy, Sainte Luce, Madagascar

When my Dad visited Madagascar, Juveni, one of my ecotourism students, gave us a guided tour of the village where he grew up. I had lived just up the road from Manafiafy for nearly a year, but this tour opened my eyes to a rich history of missionaries and taboos, and some tasty secrets.

I must confess, the tasty secrets are what I remember best. A stroll through some short, coastal vegetation sent a couple of bizarre, colourful creatures whirring into the air. These creatures, Malagasy lantern bugs (most likely Zanna madagascariensis), are Juveni’s favourite snacks. They’re supposed to taste a bit like shrimp!

But beware:

“American naturalist John C. Bannor recalled in 1885 stories of an insect called lantern fly whose bite could instantly kill people, animals and even trees. People at least were saved – according to the myth – if they had sex within 24 hours.” – The Myth Behind the Lantern Bug

Zanna species, or sakandry, eat lima bean plants and their relatives. I’m no botanist, but I wonder if a lima bean growing project in Sainte Luce could provide two sources of protein for local kids (beans and bugs) and help to replenish the poor soil in the area with nitrogen.

I never had the chance to snack on lantern bugs myself, but I think I would prefer the softer-looking nymphs, with their little fluffy bums.

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Nymph of a lantern bug, with waxy fluffy secretions for distracting and tricking predators!

Madagascar No.2

Finally a post about insects! Ants are amazing. So amazing, in fact, that we managed to teach two whole environmental education classes to our conservation club with the title “Ants Are Amazing!” (“Mahalatsa Ny Vitsiky!” or “Mahagaga Ny Vitsiky!”, in Malagasy).

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Club Atsatsaky drawing ants in Sainte Luce, Madagascar.

Let me tell you some mere snippets of information about why ants are so amazing.

There are over 600 described species of ants in Madagascar, and likely to be well over 1000 in total. There is a single colony of Argentine ants that stretches over 6000 km across Europe. Ants farm aphids, “milking” them for honeydew, and they collect leaves on which to grow tasty mildew. If a group of army ants loses the pheromone trail of the main foraging party, they will form a continuous circle called an ant mill, and run round in circles until they die of exhaustion.

The first time I lived in Madagascar, a fellow volunteer was collecting dead things to bring home to his artist friend. We needed to dry out a large bug. So we built an anti-ant tower out of Eau Vive bottles, with a platform of salt upon which to place the bug body, and a moat of water round the bottom. Overnight, the ants built a bridge by floating grains of sand across the water. They reached the bug and devoured it.

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One of the adorable, bumbling big ants that lived in our longhouse, drags a young cockroach kicking and hissing across the mahampy reed floor mat.

I only seem to have photos of Ants Being Awful. And, as anyone who has read 100 Years of Solitude or has been held under siege in a forest glade by biting ants will know, they can behave pretty atrociously. But you have to admire their team work and tenacity…

After learning the Malagasy word for amazing, I proudly announced to the camp chef that the dinner she had prepared for us was mahalatsa, thinking she would be pleased. She looked very taken aback, and turned to the guides for some sort of explanation. It turns out that mahalatsa means amazing in the startling, surprising, bewildering kind of way. Perhaps rather appropriately when it comes to ants.

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Malagasy ants ganging up on some sort of 80’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Caterpillar toy?

Madagascar No.1

LittleSolo

I’ve had the astonishing honour of living 19 months of my life in Madagascar, most of them in Sainte Luce, as a neighbour of the gentleman in this photo. Literally thousands of photographs came home with me to Ireland and there are not enough words in the English language to describe what each memory means to me or what it was like. This is the first in a series of attempts to show my Madagascar to you, grain of sand by grain of sand.

Here is sweet, shy Solo, whose name means “replacement”. Solo helped out in the conservation camp kitchen and always found me the juiciest coconuts. One evening I was sitting in our wooden research station, entering data into the SEED Madagascar Conservation Programme work computer, as the resident gecko licked my lychee peels. I spotted Solo hefting this precious newborn zebu calf down the road in his arms. Its mother had given birth while out grazing, and he was carrying it home to the village. A band of small boys followed him, triumphantly bearing the calf’s umbilical cord and placenta high in their hands. Waste not, want not!