Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 16. Crossing the glittering mountains of Canada

In July 1979, Steph, Hannah (aged 15 months) and I enjoyed a couple of days or so in San Francisco, and then headed up to Vancouver on Canada’s west coast. I was to attend the annual meeting of the Potato Association of America. Arriving in Vancouver we headed to conference venue, the beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia, sited on the western end of a peninsula jutting out into the Strait of Georgia opposite Vancouver Island.

It was a bit of a scrum, to say the least, when we arrived to the hall of residence where we had reserved a room. I say ‘room’, because the conference organizers wanted to put the three of us in separate rooms, not appropriate for a family of three. After discussing this vigorously with the staff behind the reception desk for almost an hour, a two-room suite was miraculously found, with its own bathroom. We made up a bed for Hannah with blankets and the like on the floor. It must have been fine since she slept soundly, and hasn’t mentioned it or complained about it since!

Well, having taken a few days out on the way north from home in Costa Rica, after the conference we planned to hire a car and drive across the Canadian Rockies, to meet my elder brother Ed and his wife Linda in Banff, Alberta, before driving on together to their home in Edmonton. Ed was a professor in the Department of Geography in Edmonton.

From Edmonton, our itinerary would take us by air to Madison, Wisconsin where I’d would spend a couple of days with plant bacteriologists Profs. Luis Sequeira and Arthur Kelman in the university’s Department of Plant Pathology (both had links with my employer, the International Potato Center). Luis was also an adviser to one of my potato research projects in Costa Rica. We also planned a side trip to the USDA’s Potato Introduction Station and its genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Door County on the shores of Lake Michigan in the northeast of the state. And from Madison, we would fly home to Costa Rica with transit stops in Chicago and Miami. Quite an adventure for a 15 month old toddler.

The conference sessions lasted four days. On the penultimate evening we enjoyed, along with all the other delegates and their families, a wonderful Northwest Pacific salmon barbecue on the campus lawns. It was an idyllic evening, no need for warm clothing.

But while I was stuck indoors during the conference, Steph took advantage of several tours to get out and about around Vancouver, at Stanley Park, crossing Lion’s Gate Bridge, and taking the cable car up to Grouse Mountain for spectacular views over the city.

At many of these conferences, it is customary to offer several day excursions from which you can choose. While most of those at the Vancouver meeting looked at many different aspects of the potato industry in British Columbia, the one I chose (as most appropriate for the family) was a day trip by steam train, the Royal Hudson, from Vancouver along Howe Sound north to the small community of Squamish. Imagine my surprise on arriving at the station to find a large number of delegates waiting for the train, many of whom I’d expected to take the more ‘technical’ excursions.

The Royal Hudson 2850 was the locomotive that, in May 1939, pulled the train carrying HM King George VI and Queen Elizabeth across Canada, during the first visit to Canada by a reigning British monarch. Our locomotive was 2860. I’m pretty certain that it was oil-fired rather than coal. Anyway, it was a delightful way to spend a day, see the mountains along Howe Sound, and the spectacular mountains that are a backdrop to Squamish itself.

I believe the conference finished on the Thursday lunchtime, and that gave us plenty of time to set off on the road trip eastwards up the Fraser River valley to Kamloops, some 225 miles, where we’d booked a room for the night.

To Banff the following day would be another 300 miles, and take all day. We met Ed and Linda in Banff, and the next day made a side trip into the Athabasca icefield at the southern tip of Jasper National Park, just north of Banff. Needless to say the drive through the Rockies was breath-taking, and there were ample opportunities to stop, and stretch our legs, especially important for an active toddler. It’s remarkable looking back on this trip what ‘risks’ we took. Steph sat in the backseat with Hannah on her lap. I’m not sure if Steph had a seat-belt. Hannah did not have a child seat. Wouldn’t be allowed today, and we wouldn’t even consider travelling under those circumstances.

Leaving Banff, it was downhill all the way, skirting Calgary, before heading north to Edmonton, a distance of just under 260 miles. We spent a few days in Edmonton before it was time to move on, and continue our trip in Madison.

I’ve seen various parts of the Rockies over the years, in Colorado, around the edges of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (including the Teton Range). Magnificent as they are, they don’t really hold a candle to the Rockies further north in Canada, and I’m pleased that we were able to enjoy them almost 40 years ago.

Since that trip to Canada in 1979, I’ve been back just once, to Ottawa, Ontario in April 2002. I had arranged meetings with my contact at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), both of which supported IRRI’s budget.

Arriving for my early morning appointment at CIDA on the opposite side of the Ottawa River in Quebec, I found the building closed because of a water leak the previous day. There was only a skeleton staff on duty – but not my contact, who’d not had the courtesy to inform me (before I even flew up to Ottawa) about the problem, or cancel or reschedule our meeting. I was left to twiddle my thumbs for a few hours before I could head off to IDRC, so took advantage of the fine weather to look at the Ottawa River, a canal that connects the Ottawa River with the Rideau River, and Canada’s beautiful Gothic Revival parliament building on Parliament Hill. I spent two nights at the Fairmont Château Laurier, just to the east of Parliament Hill.



Learning about crop wild relatives

Much of my work with plant genetic resources has concerned the conservation and use of landrace varieties, of potatoes and rice.

Diversity in potatoes and rice

Yes, I have done some work with wild species, and helped occasionally with collection of wild species germplasm. In terms of research, I managed an active group of scientists at IRRI in the Philippines working on the biosystematics of rice (mainly AA genome species relationships). I also had undergraduate and postgraduate students work on the wild species of Lathyrus and potatoes during the years I taught at The University of Birmingham.

I made just one short collecting trip with Jack Hawkes in early 1975, into the Andes of Central Peru to find wild potatoes. That was a fascinating trip. He knew his potato ecology; he could almost smell them. On returning to the UK in 1981, I joined my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd to collect wild beets in the Canary Islands, and some years later assisted one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega, to collect seeds of a forage legume in Tenerife. I wrote about these two collecting trips recently.  I also helped to collect some wild rices during a visit to Costa Rica in the late 1990s but, in the main, orchestrated a major germplasm collecting program while leaving the actual collecting to my other colleagues in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center.

One of my teaching assignments at Birmingham was a 10-week module, two or three classes a week plus plus an afternoon practical, on crop diversity and evolution. Many of the world’s most important crops such as wheat and barley, and a plethora of legume species such as lentil, chickpea, and faba bean originated in the so-called Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Apart from a couple of short trips to western Turkey, I had limited experience of Mediterranean environments where these crops were domesticated. I’ve since been in Syria a couple of times in the 1990s.

That was all rectified in at the end March-early April 1982¹ when I had the good fortune to participate in a course—two weeks long if my memory serves me well—in Israel, organized by Profs. Gideon Ladizinsky and Amos Dinoor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at the Rehovot campus near Tel Aviv.

Gideon Ladizinsky explains the ecology of wild lentils (or is that wild chickpea?) while Amos Dinoor looks on.

I recall that the course was funded (or at least supported in part) by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR). Among the other participants were several MSc students, class of 1981-82, from The University of Birmingham attending the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources course in the Department of Plant Biology. Not all the students of that intake could take up the invitation to travel to Israel. Those from Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia for example were not permitted (under their national laws) to visit Israel, even though an invitation had been extended to all students regardless of nationality, and the Israeli authorities would have issued visas without a stamp in their passports.

I don’t remeber all the other participants. We must have been half a dozen or so from Birmingham, plus Bruce Tyler from the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (now part of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, IBERS, at Aberystwyth University), George Ayad from IBPGR, Zofia Bulinska-Radomska and one of her colleagues from the National Centre for Plant Genetic Resources, IHAR, near Warsaw, Poland, Luis Gusmão from Portugal (who attended a short course at Birmingham), and others whose names I cannot remember.

Standing, L-R: Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), Mike Jackson, ??, ??, ??, ??, George Ayad (Egypt, IBPGR), Rainer Freund (Germany), Bruce Tyler (WPBS), Amos Dinoor, ??, Luis Gusmao (Portugal). Front row, L-R: Krystina ?, ??, Brazilian MSc student, Gideon Ladizinsky, Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Margarida Texeira (Portugal).

Bruce Tyler, from the WPBS. An inveterate smoker, one of Bruce’s comments on almost anything was ‘He’s a cracker!’

We stayed at a kibbutz near to Rehovot, and were quite comfortable there. It was a short drive each day into the campus for the classroom activities, some lectures and practical classes. But we also made excursions from the north to the south of the country, and east to the Dead Sea to find crop wild relatives in their native habitats. I wonder, 35 years on, how many of those habitats exist. We travelled freely between Israel and parts of what are now the Palestine Authority controlled West Bank.

We had opportunity of seeing these wild relatives in what was essentially a living laboratory. Both Gideon and Amos, experts in their fields of crop diversity and domestication, and disease epidemiology in wild species, respectively, used many of these wild populations for their research and of their students.

My eyes were opened to the important role of ecology in these seasonally dry-wet landscapes, often on limestone, and the differences to be found between north- and south-facing slopes. I unfortunately no longer have some of the photos I took during that trip of the populations of wild barley, Hordeum spontaneum, that grew over large swathes of the landscape, looking to all intents and purposes like a field of cultivated barley. It was in populations like these, and of wild oats that Amos Dinoor studied the dynamics of disease spread and resistance.

Gideon had a wonderful way of linking species in different habitats, how they maintained they biological identity, often through flowering at different times of the day. I remember on one occasion as we walked through a mixture of oat species with different chromosome numbers, or ploidy. I asked Gideon the time, but he didn’t look at his watch. Instead, he picked a panicle of one of the oats alongside the path, and replied ‘It’s about 4:15 pm’. Then he looked at his watch. It was almost 4:15 pm! He was so familiar with the ecology of these species that, under defined conditions, he could predict when different species would flower. Remarkable! On the coast, south of Tel Aviv, we did look at disease in different wild species. I certainly learned a great deal from this course, and discussing crop evolution and domestication with these experts from the Fertile Crescent, and others like Daniel Zohary (who had published on the origin of lentils about the same time as me in the mid-1970s; he passed away in December 2016). Among the young scientists we met was Dani Zamir who pioneered the use of enzymes, or isozymes,to study the diversity of crops and their wild relatives, tomatoes in his case.

There was one interesting episode during the course. When teaching crop evolution to my Birmingham students, I encouraged them to analyse the evidence presented to account for the origin and evolution of different crop species, often based on conflicting hypotheses. So, it was natural for them to ask questions at the end of each lecture, and even question the interpretations they had heard. After just one or two sessions, and much to the consternation of my students, the ‘professors’ refused to take any questions. As I explained to my group, their hosts had worked on a range of species in depth, and were convinced that their interpretations were the correct (and only?) ones to be believed.  My students hadn’t been impolite or ‘aggressive’ in their questioning, just keen to explore more ideas.

We did also have opportunities for sight-seeing, around Jerusalem and to the Dead Sea, as well as understand some more about irrigation agriculture for which Israeli scientists and engineers had become renowned.

¹ I remember the dates quite well, as they coincided with the invasion of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic by Argentina, and the course group had many discussions in the bar at night what the reaction of Margaret Thatcher’s government would be.