Effect of fire on peat bogs – 3D animation

Fire is hitting the headlines for many reasons at the moment, not least because of the apocolyptic wildfires turning California into scenes from Blade Runner 2049, the Pantanal into a charred landscape and the Siberian sub-arctic into an inferno. We have also just passed ‘the glorious 12th’ marking the start of the grouse shooting season, with that activity exempt from the Government’s latest (at least for today) current ‘rule of six’ that limits assemblies of more than six individuals at a time. Grouse shooting and fires are linked because it is claimed that grouse-moor management requires the ‘moor’ (more accurately mostly blanket bog peatland) to be burnt regularly to encourage growth of fresh heather and minimise the fuel load created by old and dead plant material. Indeed it has been suggested that lack of burning on blanket bog might give rise to the apocalyptic scenes currently dominating the news headlines, and therefore it is vital that we do burn such areas regularly as a social and environmental good.

Moor House National Nature Reserve viewed from the Hard Hill Experimental Plots

It is therefore instructive to look at evidence from one of the longest-running studies in the world of fire, grazing and blanket bog dynamics – namely the Hard Hill Experimental Plots in Moor House National Nature Reserve, near the highest point of the Pennines in northern England. These plots were established in 1954 largely in order to reassure sheep farmers that the policy within the reserve of no longer burning would not affect sheep production. In latter years the use of evidence from the the plots has shifted. They are now increasingly being used to argue for regular managed burning of blanket bog as an essential part of grouse-moor management. With funding from Natural England and our respective universities (University of East London and Nottingham Trent University) we were able to undertake detailed survey of all four blocks. What we found surprised us, particularly as it then cast doubt on all the previous publications based on these experimental plots. Our report can be seen here.

Of particular relevance to this present blog is that although the species composition of individual treatment plots may not have differed greatly in terms of composite statistical analysis, there were clear differences in the presence or absence of particular sensitive indicator species. These species may have only occurred as one, or a few, individuals but their simple presence – or absence – spoke volumes about the ecological condition of the ground. Even more significantly, however, the surface micro-relief (‘microtopography’) of the various treatment plots differed markedly. Areas that have been regularly burnt displayed little micro-relief other than low tussocks set within expanses of bare peat, whereas areas that had not been burnt for 65 years or more displayed a micro-relief that was beginning to approach that typical of a natural bog surface.

This difference in micro-relief is a key part of the story about the effect of burning on peat bogs but is rarely if ever reported and is thus overlooked in all the debate surrounding burning management. I therefore decided to create a 3D animation using the 3D modelling software Blender to highlight the key factors that relate micro-relief and regular burning of peat bog ecosystems. It can now be viewed on the IUCN UK Peatland Programme YouTube Channel. No narration, but I suggest a volume setting of 10%-15% in order to be immersed in the soundscape.

Peatland drainage animation – Blender 3D – plus the VR peatland experience

Peat bogs, eh? The thing is, they thrive on rain…

No posts for a while (though several Tweets) because I’ve been discovering the whole new world of 3D animation and VR – plus getting wet in Wales, the Pennines, Greater Manchester, Leicestershire….

Firstly 3D animation:

It really is a whole new world out there…! Blender is a free, open-source 3D modelling and animation package capable of producing the most extraordinary 3D images and animations – think Pixar, Blade Runner, The Matrix… you get the picture. For some months all it did was melt my brain. I was stunned by the possibilities it offered but was completely unable to achieve anything that looked like the things I was attempting to achieve. Fortunately there’s a fantastic community out there with people who really know what they are doing and, more importantly, are able to pass on that knowledge clearly and effectively through YouTube and their own training channels, so huge thanks to Zach Reinhardt at CG Boost, Grant Abbitt at Gabbitt Media, Andrew Price at Blender Guru, Derek Elliott at Derrk.com, Robby Branham at CG Fast Track and of course the fantastic Blender Foundation and its training videos.

After more than a little scratching of heads, frowning at the screen, watching and re-watching the above, followed by much stabbing hopefully (but sometimes rather randomly) at menus, I was finally able to produce my first Blender 3D animation – a short educational animation demonstrating the effects of peatland drainage, for the IUCN UK Peatland Programme:

Here’s a QR code for it too:

Then there’s VR…

Having taken a whole series of 360 degree 2D and 180 degree 3D images of peatland sites that I’m working on with Natural Resources Wales and their New LIFE for Welsh Raised Bogs project, plus the classic peatland long-term management experiment at Hard Hill, Moor House National Nature Reserve, these have been posted on my Google Photos collection:

Welsh Raised Bogs:

Hard Hill Monitoring Plots:

Having acquired a VR headset for use at the excellent IUCN UK Peatland Programme Annual Conference in Belfast we let people VR-immerse themselves in the raised bogs of Wales, and the first thing that everyone said once they put the headset on was: “Oh Wow!” It is just an extraordinary experience, floating above the bog surface and viewing it all around you. It’s possible to enjoy something of that experience with just a simple Google Cardboard VR viewer using your smartphone. Do try it. But I suggest you do it sitting down and don’t spin round too fast unless you want to feel a bit sea-sick… 🙂

As we say in our new citizen science ‘Eyes on the Bog‘ programme – this is the way to record our sites for future generations…. 🙂

Exploring art styles

As mentioned in my last blog, I now have literally thousands of photographs taken from the train while commuting between Colchester and London or while travelling up and down the country. The blog silence for the past year has meant that this collection has accumulated unused photographs in digital mountains that are threatening to topple and overwhelm me with image data. It’s therefore been something of a relief to begin scrolling back through these image archives to pick out ones that might lend themselves to the kind of artistic experimentation I talked about in that blog.

Rolling this collection of images across my screen as dozens of thumbnails at a time, the thing that has struck me most has been the quite extraordinary cloudscapes that have been caught through the train window, or while walking to or from the station in Colchester or from the DLR station to my Docklands campus. There’s also been some amazing skies while I’ve been on fieldwork – skies worth being drenched for.

Looking only at the thumbnails provides a simplification of the images, reducing them to their essential composition and tonal balance, which has been great because this has given me some pointers to their potential for image manipulation and creation. In particular, I’ve been learning how to use a combination of image-processing tools such as ‘poster edge’ (see the print of the blackbird and cherries in my last post) and ‘cut-out’, which produces some profoundly pleasing images when the settings are just so. I can foresee much more experimentation in the weeks ahead…

My Etsy store is steadily expanding again, which is probably a good thing, if only as an incentive to keep experimenting…

The nature of Art and the art of Nature…

Well hello again – it’s been a while. More than a year, in fact. A busy year and a productive year in many ways, but not productive in terms of either blogging or artworks. The Facebook scandal (remember that? – seems so long ago now) meant that I lost the desire to engage with any social media, which itself proved to be an interesting experiment – almost like standing on the corner watching all the world go by. It’s not all been simply idling, however. Things in the peatland world have rather burst into life, but that’s for another blog. Then there’s Marley. She’s added something quite extraordinary to the mix…

Young Marley
Marley – hoping, hoping

The year’s sabbatical has, furthermore, brought something else. During the past year things have been rather quiet on the shop front. A few people (including a boutique hotel) have downloaded my rather dramatic image of Storm Eileen coming our way – see that blog and my Etsy download.

Other than this, however, sales have consisted entirely of artworks rather than photographs. Discussing this with my perceptive wife, she pointed out that people simply don’t tend to hang photographs as interior decoration unless they are dramatic and in some way highly artistic. Given that I have been busy amassing several thousand landscape and cloudscape photographic images from my commuter journeys with the hope of selling some and with the intention of producing a Blurb photobook series of ‘What the Commuter Saw, this concept that people may in general prefer to hang artworks – often the more abstract the better – rather than photographs on their living room walls, gave rise to much pondering.

This pondering, together with watching the extraordinary skies created by Janhendrick Dolsma and Tim Gangon on YouTube, led me to the realisation that if a choice is given between hanging a photograph of an amazing sky on the wall and hanging an identical painting of that same sky on the wall, the painting will almost always be chosen.

This says something rather fascinating about art. It seems that we respond in some profound way to the act of artistic creation, a response that is not triggered by a simple record of a scene such as we might take with a camera or a smartphone. This response to painting perhaps goes all the way back to those acts of creation which have left us with images of bison and auroch painted on cave walls while Neanderthals and Homo sapiens shared the landscape.

Returning to the present day, however, these thoughts have forced a re-think in my approach to photography and art – and have presented me with something of a challenge. While I will continue to record photographic images of my usual subjects and probably post them in my blogs, they will increasingly be used as background material for actual paintings or for manipulation into more art-style images.

As a first step, therefore, I’ve begun working back through various images already used in earlier blogs, starting with my Venice blog, as well as seeking to capture images which have artistic potential. Thus an obliging blackbird defending a store of ornamental cherries as I walked past on my way to the station offered the opportunity for a Japanese-style print, while some of the more dramatic images from Venice have lent themselves to such treatment – and are now in my Etsy store.

Blackbird and cherries
Little egret 1
Little egret 2
Symphony in black and gold

It will be interesting to see how things develop. First task is to watch Janhendrik Dolsma again before tackling my 5,000+ photos of skies…!

Christmas in Venice


…a long-promised (and once-postponed) visit to Venice – and coinciding with Christmas 🙂

Arrival at midnight was something of an adventure as we were staying on the island of Murano. The whole business of reaching the island after the daily vaporetto service had shut down for the night (indeed perhaps for the Christmas season?!) had seemed a rather daunting challenge while sitting on the coach from Treviso Airport, but at that time of night, in freezing temperatures, it felt like we’d landed on our own surreal magic carpet when we stepped straight on board a private water taxi. Under the circumstances the 70 Euro fare seemed like a complete bargain, and there was no denying it was a beautiful boat with gorgeously varnished wood and royally plush seating in the deliciously warm cabin:

The surreal theme continued as we coasted along dark canals past even darker alleys:

By this time, daughter had the heebie-jeebies, and as we eventually blasted out past gaunt posts into the black lagoon she was far from happy…
It was therefore with a sense of considerable relief all round that we not only arrived at the island of Murano, but were dropped off right outside our hotel by our incredibly helpful taxi-driver:

Weirdness continued as we walked to the hotel entrance (and I had to remind myself that Murano was the glass-making island):

Unreality continued as were led to our room down the most astonishing corridor I have ever experienced, the ceiling higher than some cathedrals while the decor seemed more Morocco than Murano:

And so exhausted to bed, after first marvelling at the beauty of our room.

Next morning the external architecture of the hotel resumed the surreal theme by apparently placing us in ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’ by di Chiciro:

Nature, however, re-asserted normality when we were greeted at the canal-side by a curious black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) in winter plumage:

The journey across the lagoon to Venice was an utterly different experience from the previous night’s voyage, with the distant snow-covered Alps, the brilliant sunshine, turquoise lagoon and the clanking of the vaporetto engines (which sound as though they can only last about two weeks a piece, given the treatment they are subjected to):

Meanwhile the sleek private water taxis slid by on their way to Murano:

As for Venice itself… Well, ‘extraordinary’ doesn’t do it justice. The bright winter sun just seemed to make all the colours glow, aided by the reflections from the turquoise water:

The water taxis purr past while the vaporettos (in the background) thrash and grind their way round the canals:

Meanwhile the gondolas dance and weave like slow ballerinas:

Some of them really are quite sumptuous:

…and some have added biodiversity richness:

Indeed the grebes, egrets, yellow legged gulls, black headed gulls and pigeons all seem to take the hustle and bustle of the city in their stride:

This egret looked like it was wading in black Japanese lacquer:

San Marco square is indeed suitably impressive:

…but it’s the view from the waterfront there, over the gondolas out towards the Venetian island cemetery, that is one of the iconic images of Venice:

Sunset brings further transformation:

Heading from the square back to the peace and quiet of Murano gives yet another perspective, this time from the water:

Next day was spent exploring the maze of callas or alleyways which pass for ‘main streets’ in Venice:

Evening brought us back to San Marco and our favourite ‘hot chocolate’ cafe, as clouds began to gather and threaten a damp day ahead:

On the way back to our vaporetto stop we stumbled across “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. Definitely the most remarkable bookshop I’ve ever visited. And just to emphasise that you are in Venice, it even has a gondola full of books:

…and I have to say I found the most amazing collection of material; even bought a rare but incredibly useful report about wetlands (daughter eye-rolling at this point)…

Next day was a shopping and museum day because the threatened drizzle had arrived. Murano looked even more like a place of the waters beneath the drizzle:

The Venice Natural History Museum was a delight, with some beautifully displayed material. Here’s a trilobite, with its tracks still preserved:

…and a delicate dragonfly from 350 million years ago, preserved in fine silt:

The exit atrium is dominated by this beautifully displayed blue whale skeleton (is this where London’s Natural History Museum got the idea from?):

The view from the Rialto bridge emphasized the thickening clouds:

…and by evening the rain was coming down fairly steadily, so we repaired to San Marco and our ‘hot chocolate cafe’ again:

The vaporetto back to Murano took on an eerie aspect when we passed a superyacht lit up like something from outer space:

…then being apparently stalked by a boat with an eerie blue glow, the eerieness in no way dispelled when it drifted close and waited, apparently empty as an abandoned spaceship, as we disgorged passengers at various stops without ever using those stops itself:

It drifted off mysteriously into the night as we headed into the darkness of the lagoon towards Murano, from where the Phare of Murano (lighthouse) was sending out beams which pierced the increasingly heavy squalls of rain:

For our final half-day we visited the Museum of Glass on Murano. I wasn’t expecting anything too thrilling but was keen to know why Murano had ended up as a glass-making centre. I emerged an hour later, none the wiser but deeply impressed by some of the glassware on display, and the videos of techniques are amazing. All this is done quite literally by brute-force artistry (glass is heavy and it’s necessary to work fast!). No clever machines involved at all, just human sweat and skill:

The less said about the journey home the better. Suffice it to say that this is the landscape approaching Beauvais (Paris) Airport, rather than Stansted (and a day later than booked), from which we had to make our own way back to Stansted (via crowded coach, crowded Eurostar, tube and train). Thanks, Ryanair…

However, Venice…? Quite extraordinary…!
Happy New Year 🙂

The silence of snow – Myland Landscapes 10th December 2017

Sooooo… snow…
Nothing at 9 a.m. then a blizzard by 10 a.m.
Took myself off to the Myland fields armed with camera, folding stool (for the camera bag to sit on, not me) and large golfing umbrella (to keep the snow off the camera). Do click on the images to see them full size…

Such magical silence…

And so the path home through the edge of the woods as the snow began to ease off…

Merry Christmas..!!

Myland sunrise, Colchester: 23rd November 2017

Having missed a couple of obviously-spectacular sunrises (and even more spectacular sunsets) during the past week, I was out in the pre-dawn darkness on the bike to catch the dawn either across the fields of Myland or along the Wivenhoe Trail. The fact that it was already drizzling as I left the house persuaded me that the nearby fields were the sensible option. Arriving at one of my favourite field corners, things didn’t look promising though at least it had stopped drizzling:

While the first glow of dawn was creeping up the eastern horizon, the sky to the west looked positively grim and menacing:

I stood around waiting for something interesting to happen but things just stayed stubbornly grey and gloomy as the dawn glow vanishing behind a thick bank of cloud. I was on the verge of giving up and getting on the bike when a glance behind, to the west, revealed large swathes of clear sky sweeping towards us:

This offered some promise, so I decided to wait and see what would happen once this more broken cloud had passed overhead towards the rising sun. A strange pink glow made me turn back to the west and I was astonished to see a vast bank of salmon-pink cloud dominating the western horizon and heading rapidly in our direction (that is, the direction of me and the bike, which was now glowing as though it had been oven heated):

Everything began to take on a lovely pink glow as the cloudbank raced towards us even though, very curiously, the eastern sky was still stubbornly slate grey:

Suddenly, the sun burst through the grey blankets of cloud and everything took on a limpid golden hue while great coils of cloud soared overhead:

Looking back to the west, the salmon-pink cloud was hardening into a rather more ominous cumulonimbus capillatus anvil with a wet-looking darkness beneath:

Somehow, the sun managed to vanish again, and a glance back to the west revealed (not quite in the blink of an eye but astonishingly quickly) that a huge wall of cloud, heavy with rain, was heading straight for us:

…and so the expedition ended as it began, cycling through grey drizzle. By the time I arrived at the university later that morning, the sky was clear and blue. Such is the nature of a passing weather-front.

And just to round things off, today was the Minories Christmas Market in Colchester, where once again I had a stall:

Many thanks to everyone at the Minories, and my great (family) team… 🙂
…and do visit my Etsy store if you were not able to enjoy the Christmas Market in person 🙂

Colours of Klimt, Surrealism and Sunsets

Days of grey drizzly autumn rains….. but amidst these there has been a whole array of other skies which I’ve picked up while travelling, yet again, to Cumbria, then on the usual run between Colchester and London’s Royal Docks, although one or two scenes have been far from usual.

Working late to prepare material for my talk in Cumbria, the moonlit campus which confronted me as I finally emerged from our sustainability lab resembled a rather other-worldly scene from a science fiction story:

Much of the run to Cumbria on Virgin’s West Coast line the next day was grey drizzle, but a pale watery sun appeared somewhere north of Rugby:

As we passed beneath bands of nimbostratus this watery sun would vanish, to reappear once again behind its high veil of altostratus, but always edging closer to the horizon:

It finally slid from beneath a thick bank of nimbostratus just in time to send out a blaze of gold before sinking below the horizon over Preston:

The return journey was all in darkness (and rain) so nothing to report there, but the following morning brought an extraordinary layer of luminous pillow-like stratocumulus – something I’ve seen only a few times while journeying back and forth, and reminding me very much of various paintings by Edward Reginald Frampton:

Approaching the Lone Oak at Shenfield, autumn ploughing was obvious:

By the time I reached our Docklands Campus the sky was clearing and the sunlit repetition of residence blocks, with Canary Wharf in the distance, was somehow deeply pleasing:

The morning after Guy Fawkes Night saw one of our first frosty foggy mornings:

That, and the next day, were bright but cold:

Alhough things looked pretty grim over Kelvedon on the morning of the 8th November…

…we left the multiple layers of stratocumulus looming over eastern Essex, to find the two oaks east of Chelmsford surrounded by fresh-geen winter wheat beneath an increasingly blue sky:

The next day began as a kind of painterly melange, with autumn leaves seen from Platform 3 resulting in a Klimt-like explosion of colour:

Just out of Colchester, the view across the golf course seemed almost surreal, with the washed-out colours of John Piper or a Paul Nash watercolour, while the slightly eerie snaking paths and un-naturally smooth greens had something of a Giorgio de Chirico or Magritte scene:

…and with perhaps a nod to the Italian Futurists and British Vorticists, here’s what happens when a goods train passes the other way just as you are about to take a photo of some passing landscape (and makes you jump out of your skin):

Things then returned somewhat to normal, with a tail of cumulus mediocris draped across the two poplars after Marks Tey:

The winter wheat is emerging fast around the ‘White House’ approaching Witham…

…while another crop entirely is steadily filling the fields to the west of Witham:

The fields on the hillslopes of Galleywood also seem to be winter wheat, and the broken cumulus offered the possibility of an interesting sunset later:

In the event, most of the cumulus drifted away to the south-east quite abruptly at the end of the day. One minute there were large banks of cumulus, the next they’d all been swept away by an extremely chilly breeze which brought mares’ tail cirrus with it:

The extraordinary thing about skies is just how rapidly they change even when it looks as though absolutely nothing is happening. Different cloud formations were emerging and vanishing, to be replaced by new formations, in a matter of minutes even through a casual glance at the sky gives the impression that there is no motion at all. The following images, all taken within some 15-20 minutes of the first image, perhaps give a sense of how rapidly entire skies can change. Meanwhile the planes continued to land and take off from London City Airport, emerging from the eastern gloom to land, or leaping into the golden skies of the west over Canary Wharf, while, above them, larger planes circled before heading west to Heathrow:

The mares’ tails didn’t lie. Much rain during the night has been followed by a grey, damp and cold Saturday morning. Apparently La Nina is promising a colder than usual winter. Dig out those winter woollies…!

Essex landscapes and sublime sunsets – 25th October

Let’s begin with a serene sunset over Royal Albert Dock, as seen the other evening as I was walking along the university campus to Gallions Reach DLR Station:

Earlier, the day had been warm and sunny with rowers out on the dock enjoying Canary Wharf as the backdrop:

And the evening view from Gallions Reach DLR towards Canary Wharf, with the new Porsche Showroom glowing in the darkness (Oh how the wilderness of far East London has come up!), for a change gave no sign of any threatening weather on the way:

…and indeed today has been breezy but nothing worse than that, and the somewhat broken cloud towards evening suggested that a good sunset might be on the cards so I jumped onto the bike (now named ‘Monty’ according to my daughter) and headed off into the Myland fields. Things did indeed look promising:

Sitting on my little folding stool and watching things develop, the thick rows of cumulus mediocris blowing out of the west suddenly thinned to reveal an extraordinary display of golden cirrocumulus high above the darker cloud streets:

As the lower clouds moved off east, the sky above took on an appearance even more spectacular than a display of northern lights (which I’ve seen a couple of times in the far north of Scotland), with rose-gold clouds spreading across the entire bowl of a dark blue sky:

Then just as abruptly, banks of low cumulus blew in over the western horizon and it felt as though the night switch had been thrown:

Despite this, the golden glow from the remaining narrow window of sunset was bathing the field (and Monty) in a rose-gold glow:

Turning back to the sunset, I was surprised to see that the dark clouds had again dispersed somewhat and that the western sky was again a mix of dark blue, gold and flame-red:

This turned the whole darkening sky the sort of orange-pink that had caused such a stir the other day during the visit of Hurricane Ophelia, but here it was going largely un-remarked, and it was a glorious feeling to be standing in the field bathed in this strange luminescent glow. The moon had appeared above the horizon too, adding to the glow as it dodged in an out from behind the racing clouds:

Finally, however, the light began to fade completely, though it still left a golden-red glow in the west:

I was tempted to stay and see just how long it would linger, but the wind was picking up even more, it was now in effect pitch dark, and although Denis has an excellent front light I didn’t fancy pitching headlong into one of the deep drainage ditches that surround the fields so it seemed like a good moment to head home…. ….to find that England has finally won the World Cup !! Huge congratulations to the U17s, fighting back from 2-0 down to win 5-2 !! Spirit of 1966 🙂 (which I remember – in grainy black and white) 🙂

What the commuter saw: 25th October 2017 – sunshine and sunsets

After a few rather dismal days, the journey from Colchester to London once more enjoyed blue skies with somewhat raggedy cumulus, from the start of the journey over the Colne Valley:

Then past the two poplars west of Marks Tey:

Then almost (but not quite) forming ‘cloud streets’ of cumulus mediocris west of Witham:

Towards the end of the day, on walking back to our office from the lab to obtain a copy of material for our MRes student, I found the Albert Dock bathed in a gloriously serene sunset. A quickly grabbed panorama was followed by a hasty dash back to the office and even more hasty photocopying while through the office window I watched anxiously as the sunset reach its peak:

Having completed the photocopying I dashed out to the dockside, papers flying, and fortunately just caught the fiery burst as the sun finally slid below the horizon directly over London City Airport:

It was only while putting the camera away that I realised there were groups of students scattered all along the dockside – many of them 1st Years, I guess – snapping away at the sunset on their smartphones to capture the amazing sights to be seen from their university campus, and presumably then sending these to their friends and relatives all around the world. There was a sort of hushed silence all along the dock, and it was really rather sweet that they seemed so awestruck by the scene, rather than noisily capturing selfies… 🙂