Fashion, so said Louis XIV, is the mirror of history

Amber Butchart (photo by Jo Duck – used with permission)

Just when you least expect it, a real gem of a television series comes along. You’re gathered in. Then you’re hooked!

And that was our experience with fashion historian Amber Butchart’s six part series, A Stitch In Time, recently screened on BBC4.

This is what Amber has to say about the series on her blog: Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, throughout A Stitch in Time I get to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore, while key garments are recreated using the original techniques.

She peers into the mirror and helps us to interpret the costume clues held within Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini portrait, the role of hand-me-downs among 18th century workers, the impact of cotton on British life, a flamboyant armorial piece which sits at odds with the allegedly brutal nature of its wearer and the impact a scandalously informal gown would have on an already unpopular queen.

What an eye-opener A Stitch in Time has been! And from what I’ve seen in various media, we are not alone in being enthralled by the series.

My wife Steph and I enjoy watching almost any history-related program, so tuned into the first episode on 3 January almost by default. We had no idea what to expect, and we’d never heard of Amber Butchart (herself a fashion icon) even though (as I’ve now discovered) she has broadcast regularly over the past four or five years on BBC radio.

To recreate the items of clothing, Amber relied on the talents and experience of historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila  and her team, Harriet Waterhouse and Hannah Marples. It was amazing to see how every item of clothing was hand stitched. Not a sewing machine is sight, nor an electric iron.

L to R: Harriet, Ninya, Amber, and Hannah

In each program Amber talked about a particular painting—and a tomb effigy in one program—and what each tells us about the person(s) portrayed, how their clothing speaks to us about their social status, and the society in which they lived. And then she enjoyed modeling each of the recreated costumes.

She also delved into other background issues that are part of the story, none perhaps more emotive than that of Dido Belle, born in 1761 the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave, who moved in the highest circles of English aristocracy since her great uncle was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. I was already familiar with her story having read the 2014 book that same year by Paula Byrne.

Choosing the topics
I asked Amber how she came to choose the six subjects for the series. She replied: I wanted to show a real range of clothing from history—not just womenswear and royalty. I also wanted to touch on stories that are harder to uncover, to show the difficulties that can be part of the process when looking at marginalised histories. So I chose the artworks for a mixture of these reasons—plus some which are more well known within fashion history, such as Marie Antoinette and Charles II.

Charles was the subject of the first program (depicted receiving a pineapple from his head gardener, in a painting from around 1667, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and “how he used fashion as propaganda with an outfit that foreshadowed the three piece suit”. From what appeared a rather drab suit of clothes in the painting, the completed reconstruction was extremely elegant, with its shot silk lining and black silk ‘bows’ on the trousers, shoulder and sleeves. The other fashion statement is the fantastic number of handmade buttons and their corresponding button-holes.The second program considered the famous Arnolfini portrait by Van Eyck from 1434, that hangs today in the National Gallery.

Once thought to portray a pregnant Mrs Arnolfini, wife of a wealthy merchant, this is no longer believed to be the case. She’s just holding up the rather large amount of cloth that went into making her dress—just because she could, a sign of the family’s wealth. The resulting recreation was stunning, and it was also interesting to watch how the green dye was made. Not for those of a weak olfactory constitution!

The ‘common man’ was the subject of the third program, depicted in a full-size portrait at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Portraits of working men are uncommon. Just take a visit to any National Trust property, as Steph and I do all year round, and there are a thousand and one portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery. Such statements of power and fashion!

But The Hedge Cutter at Broughton shows a working man wearing a hand-me-down leather coat, evidently worn by several  generations and generously patched. It’s dark and stained, tattered in places.

The coat expertly recreated by Ninya and her team from soft, pale leather was a delight to behold. Even more compelling were the sewing techniques they had to employ to join the expensive pieces of leather together.

The story of Dido Belle in Program 4, was particularly interesting. In the painting of Dido (with Lady Elizabeth Murray), on display at Scone Palace in Scotland, not all of her dress can be seen, so Ninya and her team had to interpret how it might have been made.

Calling upon all their knowledge and experience, they recreated a dress that they believe was close to the original. Ninya confirmed to me that Dido’s clothes were the biggest challenge to research, mainly because so much of them are obscured in the painting, and because very little survives in the way of informal dress. Loose, voluminous garments made from expensive silk are prime targets for being made over, cut and reused. As we said in the programme, we were very happy with the results, but there were definitely several possible answers for how this gown was actually cut and constructed!

The Black Prince, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and Amber took us to look at the prince’s gilt-bronze tomb effigy, which shows the item of clothing that was the focus of this episode. The prince is wearing a jupon, a close-fitting tunic worn over a suit of armor and bearing heraldic arms. Warriors wore such an item of clothing in battle so they could be recognized and serve as a rallying point for their troops.

What was particularly interesting about this program (5) is that the prince’s original jupon still exists although no longer on display. After 600 years it’s just too fragile. But after his death in 1376, the jupon was hung above the prince’s tomb and remained there for centuries. Now stored carefully away in a box at the cathedral, the jupon no longer displays its vibrant colors, and although there was perhaps less interpretation needed to reconstruct it, there were still some challenges. The principal one was how to sew the cotton protective wadding between the layers of linen as a backing and the red and blue velvet of the outer layer.

Nevertheless, the completed garment was the most exuberant of the series. As Ninya told me: I loved working on the Black Prince’s jupon. It was an incredibly time-consuming process but it was so rewarding seeing it emerge in all its brightly coloured, gold-embellished glory!

Apparently the gold embroidery alone took 900 hours to complete, stitched on to a linen backing, cut out, and then sewn on to the jupon. Stunning!

In the final programme, Amber explained the court reaction to the most unroyal-like muslin dress (chemise de la reine) worn by the unpopular Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in an infamous portrait painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Such was the uproar, that the artist had to paint another portrait in a more appropriate dress worthy of a French queen. Muslin was used for undergarments, not for royal portraits. Vigée Le Brun painted more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette.

The recreation was an elegant, free-flowing gown, but not (to our modern eyes) the scandalous display for which Marie Antoinette was censured. She would have worn this type of dress in informal settings such as her retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the Petit Trianon, surrounded by intimates. Underneath the dress Marie Antoinette would have worn stays, and these were also part of the recreation. Ninya told me: . . . the silk damask stays that Harriet made for Marie Antoinette were ridiculously beautiful. There was an elegant sash at the waist, made by Hannah.

Even though the dress looks simple in style, it would nevertheless have been costly to make in the 18th century, as was demonstrated in its reconstruction. Ninya also gave a useful tip to all budding seamstresses on how to make a level hem. Tip of the series!

Perspectives
On reflection, I found the story of Dido Belle the most compelling. And while her dress appeared the most simple among the six, it was, as Ninya told me, a challenge for her team.

But as I think back on the last program and the beautiful dress that was worn by Marie Antoinette, I have to say that was my favorite. Elegant in its ‘simplicity’.

I asked Amber which costume she found the most challenging. This is what she told me: The most challenging to research in many ways was Dido Belle, and also the Hedge Cutter. Researching working dress can be difficult as it doesn’t tend to be kept in museums and wasn’t seriously written about until relatively recently. Dido has a really compelling story, and the transatlantic slave trade played a huge part in our history but is often overlooked. It runs like a thread through fashion history as it relates to cotton, and so I felt it needed to be addressed.

But what was her favorite costume? Having discovered online (from an interview she once gave) that green is apparently her favorite color, I expected her to choose the Arnolfini dress. But no!

In terms of aesthetic, I love the Charles II suit and would absolutely wear it, she replied (in the photo above it does really look elegant on her). In terms of uniqueness of experience, she continued, and historical revelation, it would be the Black Prince’s jupon. Such an incredible experience to literally walk in his shoes, and so far from the clothing that we’re used to today. Experimental archaeology at its best!

So there you have it.

I don’t think I’ll look at a portrait again in quite the same way during one of my many National Trust visits. This series has certainly opened my eyes to another aspect of social history that had, until now, passed me by.

If I have one criticism of the series, it would be this. Each program was short by about 15 minutes, that would have allowed just a little more time to explore the background story, and to focus in on some more detail of the actual techniques for making the costumes. BBC producers take note!

So, I hope that the BBC will commission another series, and allocate sufficient air time to do justice to this fascinating subject. Amber Butchart’s A Stitch in Time has been a joy to watch. This is why we willingly pay the TV licence fee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing life into history

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my hobbies is history (and archeology to some extent). I’ve often wondered whether I should have read history at university instead of botany. And, when I retired almost eight years ago, I did ponder taking a history degree course at the Open University. However, having decided that retirement meant I no longer had to meet deadlines any more, the allure of studying again soon faded.

Nevertheless, much of my reading focuses on history, and I’ve built up a sizeable library (mostly paperbacks) covering all periods and disciplines (social, economic, cultural, etc.). When we lived overseas in the Philippines I would take back half a suitcase of books after each annual home-leave in the UK. Near where my elder daughter lives in St Paul, Minnesota there is an excellent book store where I’ve been able to pick up a whole range of texts, many about the American Civil War, that I’ve never seen on sale over this side of the Atlantic. There are several university colleges near Half Price Books on Ford Parkway, where students divest themselves of course books each year—to my great advantage.

Here in the UK we are also fortunate that BBC2, BBC4 and Channel 4 regularly broadcast history programs of high quality, and others on archaeology, that provide interesting perspectives on how cultures and societies evolved. Steph and I have been enjoying many of these since we returned to the UK in 2010.

I guess my own fascination with history and archaeology on TV began with Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, a thirteen part documentary series, first broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 about the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. It was apparently the first series commissioned specifically for colour television in the UK (by Sir David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2). I didn’t actually see the series then; I was too busy being an undergraduate. We acquired the DVD in 2005.

Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, broadcast in 1973 (and which we also viewed years later on DVD), was a highly-acclaimed personal view about the development of human society through its understanding of science.

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (broadcast from September 2000, over 15 hour-long programs in three series until June 2002) was his personal view of different periods of British (actually, mainly English) history and its events. Once again, we caught up on DVD.

And during this period of working overseas, we enjoyed (on DVD) an impressive list of programs by Michael Wood, in a broadcasting career that began in 1979. He has had several series since we returned to the UK.

David Starkey is a hardy perennial who focuses on the Tudors. Despite several controversies that have surrounded him, he still appears quite regularly.

There is quite a long list of presenters (see below) whose programs we have enjoyed since 2010, covering a wide range of topics and periods. Just this past few weeks we’ve enjoyed a three-part series by Helen Castor about England’s first queen, Jane (great granddaughter of Henry VII), whose reign lasted just nine days in July 1553.

Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon is the ‘flavor of the month’ right now. A two part series, Rome Unpacked, co-presented with chef Giorgio Locatelli about the cultural history of Rome and its cuisine concluded last week. For some reason we didn’t watch the three series of Italy Unpacked broadcast between 2013 and 2015. He’s just started a four part series about the Royal Collection on BBC4, and next week he has a one-off program on BBC2 about the theft of two paintings by Van Gogh from a museum in Amsterdam in 2002. He’s certainly one of the most engaging presenters currently on TV.

But there are two presenters who are new to me with series showing right now on BBC2 and BBC4, respectively.

David Olusoga is a British Nigerian historian, writer and broadcaster who I’d never heard of until his four part series A House Through Time began three weeks ago. It tells the social history of Liverpool through the lives of families who occupied a single house, from when it was built about 200 years ago until the present day.

62 Falkner Street (at one time, number 58) is a four storey terraced house in what was once a fashionable neighborhood, in the Georgian Quarter east of the city center, but within easy striking distance of the docks that were the basis of the city’s prosperity for so many decades.

It has been painstakingly researched. There must be a large team of researchers behind the scenes digging into the census records and other documents published in Liverpool that have provided insights into the business and economic history of the city. It’s a very engaging way to tell the social history of this important port city in England’s northwest, that climbed to the pinnacle of economic prosperity in the 19th century, and fell to the depths of economic decline in the late 20th.

Combining the history of art and fashion, A Stitch in Time (a six part series on BBC4) is presented by TV newcomer Amber Butchart, who has published several books and appears regularly apparently on BBC radio.

Amber is certainly a breath of fresh air, with her flamboyant fashion style, bright red hair, and piercingly blue eyes. Her range of clothes certainly needs a personality like Amber’s to carry off successfully. Elegant!

Working with historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her team, Amber fuses biography, art, and the history of fashion, and explores the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore.

In the first program, she looked at the fashion of Charles II’s restoration, and in the second the green gown worn by the lady in the 1434 Arnolfini portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck. The third program was unusual in that the portrait was of a working man, a hedge-cutter, wearing a hand-me-down leather coat.

In each program Amber talks about the social status and lives of the subjects that we can deduce from each painting, while Ninya and her team recreate a costume just from their view of the painting and their detailed understanding of how clothes were made in the past. The Arnolfini recreation was outstanding.

From the outset I wouldn’t have imagined that a series along these lines would grab my attention. I guess we watched the first episode because there was nothing else worth watching across the channels. But then we were hooked, and I hope that the BBC will commission Amber to undertake other projects in the future.

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  • Dan Snow: a Modern History graduate from Oxford University, Snow has an impressive list of programs under his belt.
  • Mary Beard: Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, Beard has presented programs on Rome and Pompeii, among others. Very entertaining.
  • Niall Ferguson: Scottish-born Ferguson has affiliations with many academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic and specializes in economic and financial history.
  • Simon Sebag-Montefiore: he has presented some excellent city histories, on Jerusalem, Rome, Byzantium, and Vienna.
  • Lucy Worsley: she is Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and has been presenting since 2009, and has written a number of books. Renowned for her penchant for dressing up in her programs, I guess she is not everyone’s cup of tea. But we find her engaging.
  • Suzannah Lipscombe: is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, and has an impressive list of TV programs to her name.
  • Bettany Hughes: specializes in classical history, and has been broadcasting since the late 1990s.
  • Clare Jackson: is a senior tutor at Cambridge University and has a particular interest in 17th century English history.
  • Dan Jones: a writer and historian, his book on the Plantagenets was adapted for television in 2014 on Channel 5.
  • Sam Willis: is a military historian affiliated with the University of Plymouth.
  • Saul David: is Professor of Military History at the University of Buckingham.
  • Ruth Goodman: is a British freelance historian of the early modern period, specializing in offering advice to museums and heritage attractions.
  • Janina Ramirez: is an art and cultural historian, who works at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education.
  • Jago Cooper: archaeologist and the Curator of the Americas at the British Museum, and specializes in the history and pre-Columbian archaeology of South America. He has presented programs on the Incas and lost kingdoms of Central America (areas particularly close to my heart, having lived in Peru and Costa Rica for over eight years in the 1970s).
  • Neil Oliver: is a Scottish archaeologist who has presented programs on the Vikings and is a resident presenter on Coast.
  • Alice Roberts: is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at The University of Birmingham. A medical doctor and anatomist by training, Roberts front many programs bringing together expertise in archaeology and history, and appears frequently on the BBC.
  • Waldemar Januszczak: is an art critic and TV presenter and documentary producer, with many films to his credit since 1997.

How long is a piece of string?

Just three decades after Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro first encountered the potato in the high Andes of Peru in 1532, the potato was already being grown in the Canary Islands. And it found its way to mainland Europe via the Canaries shortly afterwards [1].

The first known published illustration of the potato in Gerard’s Herball of 1597.

The potato was described by English herbalist John Gerard in his Herball published in 1597. In a revised version, published in 1633 over 20 years after his death, there is another beautiful woodcut of the potato, referred to Battata Virginiana or Virginian potatoes.

Potatoes became an important crop by the late 18th century, and particularly the staple of Ireland’s impoverished citizens in the years leading up to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1840s.

Today, potatoes are one of the world’s most important crops, grown in every continent except Antarctica. Known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, it was given this name by the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 magnum opus, Species Plantarum.

The potato and its wild relatives must be one of the most studied groups of crop plants. Not that I’m biased (having researched potatoes for more than 20 years).

Potato diversity and germplasm collections
Its clear that there is a wealth of information about the diversity within the section of the genus Solanum that encompasses the potato. They have been studied extensively from a taxonomic point of view, breeding efforts worldwide have incorporated genes from many wild species to enhance productivity, and important germplasm collections were set up decades ago to preserve this important diversity, to study it, and use it in potato breeding.

My former colleague (and fellow PhD student at Birmingham), Dr Zosimo Huaman, describes the management of CIP’s wild potato collection in Huancayo to members of the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources who held their annual meeting at CIP in 1996.

Among the most important collections are held at:

The wild relatives of the potato have one of the broadest geographical and ecological ranges among species that have been domesticated for human consumption. While the various forms of cultivated potatoes were domesticated in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, and on the coast of Chile, the wild species are found from the southwest USA (in the coniferous forests of Arizona, for instance) through Mexico and the countries of Central America to Panama, along the Andes south to Chile and northern Argentina, and south and east on to the plains of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Wild species are found in the coastal desert of Peru, in the cloud forests of central America to almost 3000 m, at the highest altitudes of the Andes, well over 4000 m, and also growing in the highly humid transition zone on the eastern side of the Andes dropping down to the lowland forests (known as the ‘eyebrow of the mountain’ or ceja de la montaña).

Here is just a very small sample of the diversity—and beauty—of wild potato species (photos courtesy of my friends at the Commonwealth Potato Collection).

How many potato species are there?
Well, it depends, to some extent, on one’s perspectives as a taxonomist, use of different species concepts, and the methods used to study species diversity, and also on the work that earlier taxonomists published.

Essentially, there are three basic taxonomic approaches:

  • Morphology: often based on the study of dried herbarium specimens collected in the wild. In the case of potatoes, this has led to the description of a multiplicity of species, with almost every variant being described as a separate species. This reliance on plant morphology was the approach taken by the 19th and early 20th century botanists.
  • Biosystematics: takes an experimental view of species diversity, of breeding behaviour and relationships, and very much based on collections in the field and the study of ecology, and growing samples in a uniform environment such as the study one of my PhD students, Susan Juned, made of Solanum chacoense, a species from Argentina and Paraguay.
  • Molecular biology: methods have become available in the last couple of decades to analyse the most basic variation in DNA, and helped to refine further how potato taxonomists view the diversity within the tuber-bearing Solanums, and the relationships between species.

While these different approaches still do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how many species there are, we know that taxonomists have described and named more than 200 species. To some extent it’s like asking how long is a piece of string. And that helps me to provide an analogy.

Take a piece of string. If you were to view this string along its length that, to your vision would be fore-shortened, it would be very difficult to say with any degree of certainty just how long the string actually was. However, if you increase the angle at which you view the string, until you are looking at right angles, your ability to estimate its length also increases. At right angles you can see the whole length, and measure it accurately in many different ways.

Taxonomic study is a bit like looking at the string from different angles. Each taxonomist builds on earlier studies, and describing new species or subsuming previously described ones into another species (as merely variants). This is one of the challenges of studying wild potato species: they are highly variable and show considerable phenotypic (or morphological) plasticity. It’s not always possible to study large numbers of plants under uniform conditions to reduce the variation caused by differences in habitats.

The 2n=3x=36 chromosomes of a triploid potato, from a root-tip squash in two cells.

Furthermore potatoes have considerable chromosomal variation, with a base number of x=12, with diploids (2n=24) the most frequent, and mostly self-incompatible (i.e. they cannot self fertilise), infertile triploids (2n=36, including two cultivated species), tetraploids with 2n=48 (mostly self-fertile, and including the cultivated Solanum tuberosum of world-wide agriculture), some pentaploids (2n=60; including one cultivated form), and a few hexaploids with 2n=72. Wild potatoes are uncommonly promiscuous when grown together under experimental conditions, and will inter-cross readily (they are bee-pollinated), yet hybrids often do not survive beyond the second generation in the wild. Many species are separated by ecology, and generally do not come into contact with each other, thus maintaining their species identity.

Nevertheless, this is what makes the study of potatoes and wild species so very interesting, and that captured my interest directly for over two decades, and continues to do so, even though I moved on to the study of other crops like rice and grain legumes.

The potato taxonomists
Many botanists have taken an interest in wild potatoes. During the 19th century, the Swiss-French botanist Alphonse de Candolle (d. 1893) named a number of species, as did François Berthault (d. 1916). But the first decades of the 20th century leading up to the Second World War saw a lot of collecting and taxonomic description. In Germany, Friedrich August Georg Bitter, who specialised in the genus Solanum, described and named many species. However, it was the involvement of several Russian botanists and geneticists, under the leadership of Nicolai Vavilov, that saw an expansion in the collection of potatoes throughout the Americas, but a systematic evaluation of this germplasm leading to even more species being described.

SM Bukasov

Two names come to mind, in particular: SM Bukasov and VS Juzepczuk. They were active during the 1920s and 30s, taking part in several missions to South America, and developing further the concept of potato species. But much of their work was based on morphological comparison leading to the identification of even small variants as new species.

In August 1938, a young Cambridge graduate, Jack Hawkes, traveled to Leningrad in Russia to meet and discuss with Bukasov and Juzepczuk (and Vavilov himself) in preparation for the 1938-39 British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America (which Jack has described in his 2004 memoir Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes [2]).

A young Jack Hawkes (second from right) stands outside a church near Lake Titicaca in northern Bolivia, alongside expedition leader Edward Balls (second from the left).

Jack Hawkes

That collecting expedition, and the subsequent studies (which led to Hawkes being awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1941 for a thesis Cytogenetic studies on South American potatoes supervised by renowned potato scientist Sir Redcliffe N Salaman), was the launch pad, so to speak, of potato taxonomy research for the rest of the 20th century, in which Hawkes became one of the leading exponents.

After Cambridge, Hawkes spent some years in Colombia (where he no doubt continued his studies of wild potatoes) but it was on his return to the UK in 1952 when appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham (where he was to remain until his retirement in 1982) that his potato studies flourished, leading him to publish in 1956 his first taxonomic revision of the tuber-bearing Solanums (with a second edition appearing in 1963).

In 1990, he published his final synopsis of the tuber-bearing Solanums [3]; that taxonomic treatment is the one followed by the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Jack’s approach to potato taxonomy was based on a thorough study of morphology backed up by rigorous crossing experiments, and a cytogenetic and sometimes serological evaluation of species relationships.

I first met Jack in February 1970 when he interviewed me for a place on his newly-founded MSc course on plant genetic resources, joining the course later that same year. In September 1971 I became one of Jack’s PhD students, joining others who were looking at the origin and evolution of the cultivated species [4].

Donovan S CorrellIn these revisions he was also taking into account the work of US botanist, Donovan S Correll who published his own potato monograph in 1962 [5], as well as three important South American botanists with whom he would collaborate from time-to-time: Professor César Vargas from the National University of Cuzco; Professor Martín Cárdenas from Cochabamba in Bolivia; and Professor Carlos Ochoa, originally from Cuzco, who was a professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA) in La Molina, Lima and, around 1975 or so, joined the International Potato Center across the street from the UNA.

L-R: Danish botanist J Peter Hjerting, Martin Cardenas, and Jack Hawkes in Cochabamba.

Vargas published a number of species descriptions in the 1950s, but made his most significant contribution in his two part monographs, Las Papas Sudperuanas published in 1949 and 1956. I met Vargas on a couple of occasions, first in January 1973 just after I’d joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist. And a second time in February 1974 when I was passing through Cuzco with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Peter was making a study of incompatibility among different forms of the Andean tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and had joined me on an excursion to Cuyo-Cuyo in the Department of Puno. Vargas’s daughter Martha was studying for her MSc degree under Peter’s supervision at St Andrews.

With Prof Cesar Vargas at his home in Urubamba, near Cuzco

It was Carlos Ochoa, however, whose studies of potatoes and their relatives rivalled (and in some respects eclipsed) those of Jack Hawkes. They were quite intense taxonomic rivals, with a not-altogether harmonious relationship at times. Carlos certainly played his taxonomic cards very close to his chest.

Me consulting with Carlos Ochoa concerning the identity of some triploid potatoes, in one the screenhouses at the International Potato Center in 1974.

But the fact that he grew up in the Andes and had, from an early age, taken an interest in the diversity of this quintessential Andean crop and its wild relatives, led him to dedicate his life to uncovering the diversity of potatoes in his homeland. He was also a potato breeder and released some of the most important varieties in Peru, such as Renacimiento, Yungay, and Tomasa Condemayta.

In this video (in Spanish, and broadcast on Peruvian TV on his death in 2008) he talks about his early life in Cuzco, the pressures on him to study medicine or become a lawyer, and how he found his true vocation: the study of wild potatoes.

Setting potato taxonomy and germplasm exploration priorities at CIP
Forty-five years ago this week, CIP convened the first planning workshop on the exploration and taxonomy of potatoes [6], inviting a group of taxonomists and potato breeders to meet in Lima and mull over the ‘state of play’ taking into consideration what taxonomic research had already been accomplished, what was in the pipeline, and what CIP’s germplasm exploration policy (especially in Peru) should be. I attended that meeting (as an observer), having landed in Lima just a few days earlier.

On the taxonomic side were Jack Hawkes, Carlos Ochoa, and Donald Ugent who was a ethnobotany professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Richard Tarn, a potato breeder from Agriculture Canada at Fredericton, New Brinswick, had completed his PhD under Jack’s supervision at Birmingham. Frank Haynes, a professor of genetics and potato breeder at North Carolina State University (and long-time friend and colleague of CIP’s first Director General, Richard Sawyer) and Roger Rowe [7], then curator of the USDA’s potato collection at Sturgeon Bay (who would join CIP in July 1973 as the Head of Breeding and Genetics, and become my PhD co-supervisor) were the other participants.

Workshop participants looking at CIPs germplasm collection in the field at Huancayo (3000 m) in central Peru. L-R: David Baumann (CIP field manager), Frank Haynes, Jack Hawkes, Roger Rowe, and Don Ugent.

In 1969, Jack had published (with his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting [8]) a monograph of the potatoes of southern cone countries of South America [9], and by the time of the CIP 1973 workshop was well into research on the potatoes of Bolivia [10], leading publication of a monograph in 1989.

Peter Hjerting collecting Solanum chacoense in Bolivia in 1980. Standing next to him is Ing. Israel Aviles, a Bolivian member of the expedition. Their driver looks on.

What I’ve never been able to fathom after all these years is why Ochoa decided to write his own monograph of the Bolivian species rather than concentrating in the first instance on the Peruvian species. Nevertheless Ochoa did produce his own fine monograph in 1990 [11], beautifully illustrated with some fine watercolours by CIP plant pathologist Franz Frey. This was followed by an equally magnificent volume on the potatoes of Peru in 2004 [12], also illustrated by Frey.

Throughout his expeditions and research, Ochoa was supported by several assistants, the most notable being Ing. Alberto Salas. Now in his mid-70s, he has been collecting wild potatoes for five decades.

I knew Alberto when I first joined CIP in 1973, and it was a delight to meet him again (although he had retired) during my visit to CIP in July 2016.

Taking up the baton
With retirement, Hawkes and Ochoa passed the potato taxonomy baton to a new generation of researchers, principally David Spooner, a USDA scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who made several collecting trips throughout the Americas.

David Spooner

David’s research took potato systematics to a new level, employing the developing molecular and genomic approaches, and use of different classes of markers to help him refine his understanding of the diversity of the tuber-bearing Solanums, building of course on the very solid Hawkes and Ochoa foundations.

Although no longer working on potatoes (his most recent focus on carrots supported the PhD thesis of Carlos Arbizu, Jr, the son of one of my PhD students at Birmingham in the 1980s), David’s scientific output on potatoes has been prodigious. With molecular insights supporting more traditional methods he has proposed a 50% reduction in the number of potato species from the more than 200 listed in Hawkes’s 1990 publication.

Is this the end of the potato taxonomy story? Probably for the time-being. It’s unlikely that anyone will pursue these studies to the same depth as Hawkes and Hjerting, Ochoa, or Spooner. Nevertheless, as the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection have done, most potato researchers will take a pragmatic approach and fix on a particular taxonomic treatment on which to base their management or use of germplasm. Taxonomy is one of those disciplines in which subjective interpretations (obviously based on empirical studies of diversity) can lead to contrary classifications. What is a distinct species to one taxonomist may be merely a variant to another. Undoubtedly these different taxonomic treatments of the tuber-bearing Solanums have permitted us to have a much better appreciation of just how long ‘the potato piece of string’ really is.

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[1] Hawkes, JG & J Francisco-Ortega, 1993. The early history of the potato in Europe. Euphytica 70, 1-7.

[2] Hawkes, JG, 2004. Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes – Memories of the British Empire Potato Collectiing Expedition to South America 1938-1939. Wageningen, the Netherlands. ISBN: 90-901802-4.

[3] Hawkes, JG, 1990. The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London.

[4] Since I was working on the origin and evolution of a cultivated species of potato for my PhD, I made only one short collecting trip for wild species with Jack in early 1975, to the Departments of Huanuco, Cerro de Pasco, and Lima. On his trips to Peru between 1973 and 1975 he would join me in the field to look at the germplasm I was studying and give me the benefit of his potato wisdom.

[5] Correll, DS, 1962. The Potato and its Wild Relatives. Contributions from the Texas Research Fiundation 4, pp. 606. Texas Research Foundation, Renner, Texas.

[6] International Potato Center, 1973. Report of the Workshop on Germplasm Exploration and Taxonomy of Potatoes. Lima, Peru. 35 pp.

[7] I’ve kept in touch with Roger and his wife Norma all these years. After I left CIP in 1981, Roger moved to East Africa to work with the animal diseases center that became ILRI after its merger with another CGIAR livestock center in Ethiopia. He was DDG-Research at CIMMYT in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While I was at IRRI, he was based in Cairo working for the CGIAR center that became WorldFish (with its headquarters in Penang, Malaysia). Before it moved to Malaysia, ICLARM as it then was had its offices in Manila, and we would see Roger in the Philippines from time-to-time. It was great to meet up with Roger and Norma again in July 2016 when I was in Lima for the genebank review that I led.

[8] From what I can determine through a Google search, as of January 2018, Peter celebrated his 100th birthday in 2017. He has a Mexican tetraploid (2n=4x=48) species named after him, Solanum hjertingii. When I was at Birmingham in the 1980s I had two PhD students, Lynne Woodwards and Ian Gubb who studied this species because its tubers lack so-called enzymatic blackening, a trait that could be very useful in potato breeding.

[9] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1969. The Potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – A Biosystematic Study. Annals of Botany Memoirs No. 3. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[10] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1989. The Potatoes of Bolivia – Their Breeding Value and Evolutionary Relationships. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[11] Ochoa, CM, 1990. The Potatoes of South America: Bolivia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[12] Ochoa, CM, 2004. The Potatoes of South America: Peru. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.

Brexit means Brexit. What an almighty cock-up!

Forty-five years ago today, 1 January 1973, the United Kingdom (along with Denmark and Ireland) became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union (EU). Now we are on the verge of leaving the EU. March 2019 is not so far away.

Brexit is and, I believe, will become a social, political, and economic catastrophe for this country. I am firm Remainer, yet a member of that demographic who apparently swung the referendum vote in favour of Leave (I turn 70 in November this year). I refuse to be labelled a ‘Remoaner’.

What beggars belief is that the government apparently had no end-plan developed when Article 50 was triggered earlier in 2016 (and only just beginning to discuss this!), nor had they carried out comprehensive risk analyses or impact studies, never mind what Brexit Secretary David Davis has or has not said. His vagueness and the way he has approached the Brexit negotiations seemingly as a game with limited or no consequences is an insult to the nation.

What I still cannot fathom—and the blame must be placed at the door of former Prime Minister David Cameron—is why the referendum bar (which was ‘advisory’) was never set higher. By this I mean that there should there have been an absolute majority of the electorate required in favour of leaving the EU. As it is, only 37% of the electorate (almost 52% of those who voted) are forcing us out of the EU with all the consequences for our economy, for trade, security, travel, education, science, health, human rights. Every part of the fabric of the nation will be affected in one way or another. It’s also astonishing to me that parts of the UK that have benefited especially from EU membership (in terms of regional grants and the like) voted to leave, or that constituencies like the fishermen believe that things will improve for them post-Brexit.

I’m sick to death of hearing Brexit means Brexit, the will of the British people, the best deal possible, or taking back control. Well, Theresa, David, Boris Johnson and all you other second class politicians (or failed ones like Ian Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling, to mention but two among the many, especially on the Conservative benches), I’m afraid the EU holds all the cards in these negotiations. Our status as a small island of diminishing consequence off the coast of mainland Europe will be confirmed.

Our accession to the EEC came a decade after the President of France, Charles de Gaulle famously failed to back the UK’s application to become a member stating that the British government lacks commitment to European integration. In November 1967, he vetoed the UK’s application a second time.

In the light of what has happened ever since, including a confirmatory membership referendum in 1975 under the Labour government headed by Harold Wilson, and subsequent constant carping from the sidelines by the British government under Margaret Thatcher, you have to admit that de Gaulle’s perspective was somewhat prescient.

From my own perspective, I was proud that Prime Minister Edward Heath eventually prevailed and signed the terms of accession to the EEC in December 1972.

I believe that membership has brought a level of stability and economic prosperity to the UK that we could not have achieved on our own. The EU represents a market for 50% or more of our international trade. And now we are about to throw that away and jeopardise our future. Talk about baby and the bath water.

More than 50% of the UK population (based on 2011 census demographic data) were born at or after the UK joined the EEC. That goes up to around 75% if you take into account those who were teenagers or so on accession. The UK inside the EEC/EU is all they have ever known.

I’m a passionate supporter of continued membership of the EU. Well, perhaps passionate is a little strong. But I’m certainly an keen advocate for continued (and pro-active) membership. Yes, there are problems, issues, challenges being a member of the EU; no doubt about it. The EU is not a perfect institution, by any stretch of the imagination. Had the UK been a more committed member (rather than carping constantly from the sidelines), then I believe we could have brought much of our renowned British pragmatism to help resolve many of the structural and operational issues that bedevil the EU.

Theresa May’s government is incompetent (more a Coalition of Chaos than Strong and Stable), and while the Brexit ‘divorce’ negotiations are said to have made some progress (although I’m not really sure what), her ministers, especially David Davis, have become increasingly mendacious. Their arrogance and lack of respect for the electorate and facts is truly staggering. The Conservative Party has become a party of ostriches (especially MPs like the honorable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg). Furthermore we are being held to ransom by the short-sighted, bigoted, and lack of imagination Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, that May now has to rely on for support in the House of Commons. What a mess we are in.

The lack of focus and understanding in particular over the border issues between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are not only worrying but potentially dangerous. In September I spent 10 days in Northern Ireland, and witnessed how that part of the UK has benefited from a couple of decades of prosperity and peace, now in jeopardy because of Brexit.

But a dilemma I face is that I cannot imagine the opposition Labour Party flourishing in government under Jeremy Corbyn, nor can I see myself supporting Labour in an election. I make no bones about it. I am no fan of Corbyn and his closest acolytes. He is not a credible Prime Minister-in-waiting. I regret that he and his party did not take a stronger pro-EU position. His equivocation is reprehensible. I worry for the future of the Labour Party as the left-wing Momentum group strengthens its stranglehold. Likewise, I am no supporter of what the Conservatives now stand for, and its right-wing agenda.

I can only hope that sounder minds will prevail and brought to bear during 2018. Can Brexit be stopped? More from hope than expectation, I think it just might. But will the EU exert a forfeit to allow us back in, requiring the UK to sign up for measures that we have opted out of? Perhaps.

That is my wish for 2018, and although I never make New Year resolutions, I will continue to support pro-EU initiatives as I am able.

 

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

From 1995 to late 2000, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through its Genetic Resources Center (GRC, now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center) coordinated a project to collect and conserve the genetic diversity of rice varieties that smallholder farmers have nourished for generations in Asia and Africa. The collecting program also targeted many of the wild species relatives of cultivated rice found in those continents as well as Latin America.

With a grant of more than USD3 million from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) the project made significant collections of rice varieties and wild species at a time when, in general, there was a moratorium on germplasm exploration worldwide. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force at the end of December 1993, and many countries were developing and putting in place policies concerning access to germplasm. Many were reluctant to allow access to non-nationals, or even exchange germplasm internationally. It’s not insignificant then that IRRI was able to mount such a project with the full cooperation of almost 30 countries, and many collecting expeditions were made, many of them including IRRI staff.

As Head of GRC from 1991 to 2001, I developed the project concept and was responsible for its implementation, recruiting several staff to fill a number of important positions for germplasm collection, project management, and the research and training components. I have written about the project in more detail elsewhere in this blog.

One of the most important strategic decisions we took was to locate one staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao, in Laos (also known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) where IRRI already managed the Lao-IRRI project for the enhancement of the rice sector. This project was also funded by the SDC, so it was a natural fit to align the rice germplasm activities alongside, and to some extent within, the ongoing Lao-IRRI Project.

The leader of the Lao-IRRI Project was Australian agronomist, Dr John Schiller, who had spent about 30 years working in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and whose untimely death was announced just yesterday¹.

Until Appa Rao moved to Laos, very little germplasm exploration had taken place anywhere in the country. It was a total germplasm unknown, but with excellent collaboration with national counterparts, particularly Dr Chay Bounphanousay (now a senior figure in Lao agriculture), the whole of the country was explored and more than 13,000 samples of cultivated rice collected from the different farming systems, such as upland rice and rainfed lowland rice. A local genebank was constructed by the project, and duplicate samples were sent to IRRI for long-term storage as part of the International Rice Genebank Collection in GRC. Duplicate samples of these rice varieties were also sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault when IRRI made its various deposits in that permafrost facility inside the Arctic Circle.

Appa Rao and John Schiller (in the center) discussing Lao rice varieties. Im not sure who the person in the blue shirt is. In the background, IRRI scientist Eves Loresto describes rice diversity to her colleague, Mauricio Bellon.

Of particular interest is that Lao breeders immediately took an interest in the collected germplasm as it was brought back to the experiment station near the capital Vientiane, and multiplied in field plots prior to storage in the genebanks. There are few good examples where breeders have taken such an immediate interest in germplasm in this way. In so many countries, germplasm conservation and use activities are often quite separate, often in different institutions. In some Asian countries, rice genebanks are quite divorced from crop improvement, and breeders have no ready access to germplasm samples.

Appa Rao was an assiduous rice collector, and spent weeks at a time in the field, visiting the most remote localities. He has left us with a wonderful photographic record of rice in Laos, and I have included a fine selection below. We also published three peer-reviewed papers (search for Appa Rao’s name here) and seven of the 25 chapters in the seminal Rice in Laos edited by John and others. 

The rices from Laos now represent one of the largest components (maybe the largest) of the International Rice Genebank Collection. Many are unique to Laos, particularly the glutinous varieties.

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¹ Yesterday, I received an email from one of my former IRRI colleagues, Professor Melissa Fitzgerald who is now at the University of Queensland, with the very sad news that John Schiller had been found in his apartment just that morning. It’s believed he had passed away due to heart failure over the course of the weekend.

I first met John in November 1991, a few months after I’d joined IRRI. He and I were part of a group of IRRI scientists attending a management training course, held at a beach resort bear Nasugbu on the west coast of Luzon, south of Manila. The accommodation was in two bedroom apartments, and John and I shared one of those, so I got to know him quite well.

Our friendship blossomed from 1995 onwards when we implemented the rice biodiversity project, Appa Rao was based in Vientiane, and I would travel there two or three times a year. In February 1997, I had the opportunity of taking Steph with me on one trip, and that coincided with the arrival of another IRRI agronomist, Bruce Linquist (with his wife and small son) to join the Lao-IRRI Project. We were invited to the Lao traditional welcoming or Baci ceremony at John’s house, for the Linquists and Steph. I’d already received this ceremony on my first visit to Laos in 1995 or 1996.

John also arranged for Appa and Chay to show Steph and me something of the countryside around Vientiane. Here were are at the lookout over the Ang Nam Ngum Lake, just north of the capital, where we took a boat trip.

L to R: Mrs Appa Rao, Appa, Kongphanh Kanyavong, Chay Bounphanousay, Steph, and me.

After he retired from IRRI, John moved back to Brisbane, and was given an honorary fellowship at the University of Queensland. He continued to support training initiatives in Laos. As he himself said, his heart was with those people. But let John speak for himself.

My other close colleague and former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel, overnight wrote this eloquent and touching obituary about John and his work, that was published today on the IRRI News website. Just click on the image to read this in more detail.

 

No longer Queen of the Skies

Yesterday, I was sorting through some old 35 mm slides and came across this one taken at Istanbul’s Yeşilköy Airport, in April 1972. There, on the tarmac, are a Turkish Airlines DC-9 and Boeing 707 and, on the left, a Sabena Sud Aviation Caravelle (last flown by any airline in 2005). I’ve flown that aircraft, but I can’t remember when or where. I first flew the 707 in April 1972 on Turkish Airlines from London to Istanbul. Then next, in January 1973, on the B.O.A.C. (that’s British Airways today) route to Lima, Peru via Antigua in the Caribbean, Caracas (Venezuela), and Bogotá (Colombia).

One aircraft that I have since flown countless times is the iconic Boeing 747, in at least five of its configurations: 200, 300, 400, 400-Combi, and SR. So the news that United Airlines had retired its 747 fleet caught my eye a few days ago.

On 7 November, United Airlines flew its last 747 flight. Ever! Flight UA747 between San Francisco (SFO) and Honolulu (HNL) recreated the first ever 747 flight on the same route, on 23 July 1970.

The Boeing 747 flew for the very first time on 9 February 1969, and its launch airline was Pan American World Airways, on 22 January 1970.

The Boeing 747, being displayed to the public for the first time, on 30 September 1968.

Just 50 years since it made its maiden flight, and the 747 is on its way out. Not only has it been retired from United’s fleet, by the end of this year no US airline will operate this beautiful aircraft, the Queen of the Skies, at least as a passenger aircraft. Cathay Pacific had already retired its last passenger jumbo 747-400 in 2016, as did Air France. Singapore Airlines retired its 747 fleet as long ago as 2012. British Airways still has the largest fleet, and Lufthansa and KLM operate significant fleets. But for how much longer? I guess that before long the 747’s recognisable bubble will no longer be seen at airports around the world.

Fifty years ago, the 747 was a game-changer, making intercontinental travel accessible and affordable to the masses.

When did you last fly a 747? It must be a decade ago that Steph and I flew to Minnesota for Christmas on Northwest Airlines. I think our first 747 flight was from Miami to London Heathrow on British Airways, in November 1978. But I’m not sure.

For a decade, when we lived in the Philippines, we regularly flew back to Europe on homeleave on KLM’s 747 (often Combi aircraft) service via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam’s Schipol. Many work trips to Europe were enjoyed on Lufthansa, or to the US on Northwest Airlines, and subsequently Delta. Some of the more exciting landings on an aircraft of this size were into Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak airport, as this Malaysian Airlines 747 shows.

I’ve flown in all three classes on the 747, mostly in Business Class. Whenever possible on Lufthansa, I upgraded to First Class using airmiles. It was on one of these flights from Frankfurt to Manila via Bangkok (and a colleague of mine and I were the only passengers in First Class out of Bangkok) that I had the opportunity of sitting in the jump seat on the flight deck for the landing at Manila. Magical! Those were, of course, pre-9/11 days.

At its launch, and for several decades afterwards, aircraft flying over oceans were required to have four engines. That’s no longer the case, and most long-distance flights now operate on twin-engined aircraft, since engines have become much more reliable. Today, most airlines operate twin-engined Boeing 777s or Airbus A330s (although they are also on their way out), and now the ‘new’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its competitor Airbus A350. The days of the four engine behemoths are past, it seems. Almost.

The Airbus A380 came on to the scene just a decade ago. It made its maiden flight in April 2005, and went into service, with Singapore Airlines two and a half years later. Just 10 years later however (reported yesterday in fact), Singapore Airlines has ‘mothballed’ the first of its A380s.

Sales of the A380 have flagged, and Airbus is now making just a handful a year. Emirates Airlines operates the world’s largest fleet of this aircraft (many times more than any other airline), has just taken delivery of its 100th A380, and waits delivery of a further 45. But the airline is also staking its future also on the new generation 777s, with 150 on order, and has also just announced an order for 40 Dreamliners (much to the disappointment of Airbus that had hoped to woo Emirates with the A350).

I have flown the A380 on three occasions. In October 2010, I flew from Dubai to Bangkok, and was upgraded from Business Class to First since another passenger ‘claimed’ my seat. Then in November 2014, I flew in Business Class from Dubai to Bangkok in Business Class and used airmiles to upgrade to First for the return leg. Then a year ago, I flew Business Class from Birmingham (BHX) via Dubai (DXB) to Melbourne (MEL), Australia, with the DXB-MEL-DXB-BHX sectors on the A380. It’s a beautiful aircraft that I have waxed lyrical about before.

However, I think there’s one aircraft, sadly no longer operational, that’s even more iconic than the 747. The Anglo-French Concorde! With her distinctive shape and profile, Concorde turned heads wherever she flew around the world.

The last ever flight of any Concorde, 26th November 2003.

I got up close and personal with Concorde on one occasion. In June 1970, I’d just finished my final exams at the University of Southampton, and travelled to Fairford in Gloucestershire to spend a long weekend with my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline; also young Alex, just two years old. Martin was an engineer on the Concorde flight test program based at RAF Fairford, and took me to see the sleek bird. I remember walking around the aircraft, but whether we went on board or not is no longer clear to me.

Then in the 1980s I saw Concorde twice in the air. During the summer months, it’s not unusual for aircraft heading to Birmingham International (about 15 miles due east from Bromsgrove) to be placed in a holding pattern overhead. One weekend, I heard an approaching aircraft whose engines sounded very different from the usual suspects. Looking up, I saw Concorde banking towards Birmingham, at perhaps no more than 5000 feet. What a spectacular sight. Then, one holiday in Pembrokeshire in South Wales with Steph, Hannah, and Philippa, I heard a loud ‘bang’. I saw a white dot at high altitude streaking westwards across the sky to the south of where we were sitting on the beach. With my binoculars I confirmed it was a British Airways Concorde, heading for New York or Washington. The ‘bang’ must have been its sonic boom.

Concorde 001 flew for the first time from Toulouse on 2 March 1969, just a month after the 747 took to the skies. A month later still, on 9 April, Concorde 002, built in the UK by the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) took off from Filton north of Bristol and flew the short distance to RAF Fairford. During the flight test program, Martin went with Concorde around the world, where it was tested under different landing and take-off conditions. I’m not sure if he ever flew the aircraft.

Only ever operated by British Airways and Air France, Concorde’s supersonic service was launched on 21 January 1976. Just 14 of the 20 Concorde’s built were flown commercially.

Concorde’s fate was sealed however by a small piece of debris on the runway at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on 20 July 2000, which flew up and punctured one of the fuel tanks on AF4590, a charter flight from Paris to New York. Catching fire, Concorde plunged to the ground just minutes after take-off, killing all on board. Three years later, and also citing dwindling revenues, both airlines retired Concorde from their fleets. The supersonic era was over almost before it had begun.

And now I’ll never have that chance. But my mother did!

My brother was one of the lucky ones whose name ‘was pulled from the hat’ to enjoy a special flight on a British Airways Concorde from Filton. Instead, Martin and Pauline gave the seat to my Mum, and she took to the air on BA9082C on 14 July 1984, seat 16B. She was 76 years of age.

I guess the flight must have been a spin around the Bay of Biscay to the north coast of Spain and back to Filton, around two to three hours, and going supersonic for part of the flight. It was always one of Mum’s brightest memories.

 

On 13 July 1985, the Live Aid concert opened at Wembley Stadium in London at noon, then at the US venue in Philadelphia just under two hours later. Phil Collins (formerly of Genesis) performed his set in Wembley, took a helicopter to Heathrow and by flying on Concorde to the US, was able to join Eric Clapton on stage in Philadelphia a few hours later.

While the supersonic age has passed me by, and almost certain not to return in my lifetime, there are still many new aviation adventures to explore. I look forward to my first flights—whenever they may be—on the Dreamliner and the A350.

 

Civil War destruction . . . genebank redemption

A couple of months back, I enjoyed an excellent 672 page biography of Confederate Major General Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Written by SC Gwynne in 2014,  Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson is an account of Jackson’s theatre of operations in Virginia (and in those areas that became West Virginia after it broke from Virginia in 1863), which centered on the Shenandoah Valley, a region just north of where Steph and I travelled across the Appalachians in June this year.

Jackson’s death (from pneumonia after he was wounded in the arm by friendly fire) following the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia from 30 April to 6 May 1863 is perhaps among the most significant ‘What if’s’ of the American Civil War. Stonewall was undoubtedly one of the Confederacy’s most successful generals, and history is left to ponder what the outcome of the Civil War might have been had he lived longer, and his success rate against Union forces maintained.

Steph and I saw evidence of the conflict, the to-ing and fro-ing of opposing forces, when we visited the Pinnacle at Cumberland Gap on the borders between Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Successive Union and Confederate forces fought over and continually swapped possession of this key passage through the mountains.

And now I have just finished another book, Noah Andre Trudeau’s 2008 Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea (at 671 pages) based in large part on the personal accounts of officers and men among the 60,000 who took part in the November-December 1864 campaign in Georgia (the Empire State of the South) led by Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, from Atlanta to Savannah, 250 miles to the southeast on the Atlantic coast. They were divided into different columns, and lived off the land as they moved south, through landscapes that hindered their progress as much as did the continual harassment from Confederate forces on their periphery.

Our 2017 USA road trip began in Atlanta, and paralleled, I now discover, the route of Sherman’s March to the Sea although his route took him further east. His occupation of Savannah (where we stayed for a night), and subsequent move up through South Carolina (just as we did) marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, as Sherman and his superior, Ulysses S Grant, closed in on Confederate capital Richmond in Virginia, and the final capitulation of Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee at the Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Arriving in Savannah, Union forces found an elegant city of wide, tree-lined boulevards (hanging with Spanish moss) and quiet squares, much as Steph and I did on our trip. Savannah was a delight.

After the end of the Civil War, Sherman’s ‘exploits’ in Georgia were immortalised in Marching Through Georgia, composed by Henry Clay Work.

To me, three aspects of the Civil War stand out. This must have been one of the first wars in which an extensive railway network transported troops and supplies over long distances. In Georgia, Sherman’s troops ripped up hundreds of miles of railway tracks on their March to the Sea. Second, the electric telegraph was an essential (but not always available) system of communication between armies and civilian administrations. Thirdly, the war must also be one of the first to be documented in detail photographically. New York-born Matthew Brady was one of the earliest photographers in the country, renowned for his Civil War output.

Having criss-crossed this region and the southern Appalachians myself, I remain in awe of the feats undertaken by both Union and Confederate armies, tens of thousands of men marching across some of the most difficult terrain, under the most adverse weather conditions, and then having to face each other in battle. The casualties on both sides were catastrophic, the wounds inflicted unimaginable, and rudimentary surgery and medical care often leading to as many deaths after the battles as during them. Conditions in camps were frequently squalid, and diseases were rife. In fact, as many soldiers may have died from disease as on the battlefield.

So what has this whole saga got to do with genetic resources? Let me explain. In an earlier post about crop diversity, I’d commented on soldiers’ accounts of the ‘corn fields’ which they passed, the long-strawed varieties grown, and through which they trampled during the Battle of Waterloo.

In their commentaries during the March to the Sea, Union soldiers were fortunate to live quite well off their foraging activities. In fact, this was part of Sherman’s overall strategy, although backed up with sufficient supplies and beef-on-the-hoof for about five to six weeks, and his calculations based on an understanding of the agricultural economy of the region through which his army would pass.

Soldiers report dining on hogs and chicken, potatoes and sweet potatoes in abundance, peanuts, rice, molasses and honey. I think that, in general, ‘potatoes’ probably refers just to sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) rather than so-called Irish potato, Solanum tuberosum. It interesting to note how important were three crops not native to this southeast region of the country, nor the USA in general: sweet potatoes (from the Asia-Pacific region), peanuts from South America, and rice from Africa and Asia.

This was, of course, a slave-based economy. Without slave labour, the growing of cotton and rice would have been almost impossible. In antebellum Georgia (as in South Carolina) rice cultivation was very important since the early 18th century. As Sherman’s armies approached Savannah, they encountered rice paddies more frequently. Some had standing crops which they harvested and processed in numerous rice mills once they got them operational again. Other rice paddies, closer to the city, had been flooded (perhaps also with brackish or salt water) and were formidable barriers to infantry. Crossing these wide open landscapes, deep in mud, attacking Union troops were clearly exposed to Confederates entrenched behind carefully-sited defensive lines.

On Monday 19 December 1864, during a manoeuvre on difficult terrain to cross over the Savannah River into South Carolina, one soldier from Massachusetts wrote: We came across rice fields all cut up with ditches from 1 to 10 ft wide, which we had to get over as best we could; part of the way was through rice as high as our heads & all wet with dew. Clearly not a modern HYV! So what could this rice be?

It was probably Carolina Gold, a variety originally thought to have been introduced into South Carolina and Georgia from Madagascar¹. The slaves, many from West Africa, knew all about growing rice, since there is an indigenous rice culture in that part of the continent.

Rice paddy (of Carolina Gold?) near Savannah, GA

Rice cultivation went into decline after the Civil War, due to many factors including the destruction of paddies, reluctance of emancipated slaves to take on this work, and other global trade pressures. Other parts of the USA became important rice-growing areas, such as California, southern Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. By the 1940s Carolina Gold was hardly in cultivation anywhere. Was it lost? Not completely.

In the 1980s, a eye doctor from Savannah by the name of Dr Richard Schulze (and a keen duck hunter) discovered that seeds of Carolina Gold were held in a USDA collection at Beaumont in Texas (the USDA’s rice collection is now held at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center-DBNRRC- in Stuttgart, Arkansas). Scientists at Beaumont multiplied seeds of this accession, sending Schultze some 14 pounds of seeds. By 1988, these had been multiplied to 10,000 pounds. Carolina Gold is now grown quite widely, among other heirloom varieties.

There is even a Carolina Gold Rice Foundation whose mission is to advance the sustainable restoration and preservation of Carolina Gold Rice and other heirloom grains and raise public awareness of the importance of historic ricelands and heirloom agriculture.

In October 2010, my former IRRI colleague, Tom Hargrove (who passed away in January 2011) writing for Rice Today about two varieties of rice, Carolina Gold and Carolina White, found along the banks of the Amazon in northeast Peru, conjectured that they were taken there by Confederados, people from the southern US who moved to Brazil around the time of the Civil War. The rice, called Carolino by local farmers, was found by CIAT rice breeder (and an old friend of mine), César Martínez.

When I checked the Genesys database, I found 19 accessions with the name Carolina Gold, in the USDA collection and in the International Rice Genebank Collection at IRRI. Most have available seeds. The accessions at IRRI are duplicates of USDA accessions. Some are breeding materials or selections. I wonder which one was provided to Richard Schulze? In any case, even though they have the same Carolina Gold name, I wonder how genetically distinct they are from one another.

Once again, my interest in the American Civil War (and history more generally) has come together with my other ‘obsession’, the conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

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¹ Just after I posted this story earlier today, one of my friends from the Crop Trust, Luigi Guarino, Director of  Science & Programs at the Crop Trust, told me that he had also posted something about Carolina Gold in the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog in November 2007. He was commenting on a paper by Anna McLung (Director of the DBNRRC) and a colleague who used molecular markers to assess the affinity of Carolina Gold with other germplasm from Africa. It seems it was more closely aligned with germplasm from Ghana than Madagascar, fitting in better with the slave trade links between West Africa and the early colonies on the east coast of the United States. Hargrove refers to a Madagascar origin for Carolina Gold, and was obviously not aware of the paper by Anna McLung.

And it seems there’s more to be found about Carolina Gold from a whole slew of stories on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.