Late summer blues . . . and yellows, oranges, reds – even some vivid greens

I think late summer-early autumn is my favorite time of the year. We’ve enjoyed the dog days of high summer. The heat is slipping away, an unusual feature of any normal British summer; recently we experienced some of the highest temperatures I can remember.

Yet yesterday (21 August) it already felt more like autumn, as Storm Ellen, an area of deep low pressure, was battering Ireland and the western side of the UK with wind gusts in some places in excess of 50 mph, and even reaching more than 40 mph here in northeast Worcestershire.

Even so, the sun tried to shine, a welcome break from the miserable weather earlier in the week when it was wet and overcast all day. Made worse by the rain finding a crack in the flat roof above our kitchen, and seeping through to splash all over a work surface below. Bummer! But hopefully now resolved with the judicious application of a product I’d not come across before: Fiba-Pol.

But enough of my waxing unlyrical about the weather, which everyone knows is favorite British pastime.


I love this transition from summer to autumn. A time when the colors in the garden are often at their strongest and most vibrant. Here are just a few of the lovely plants in Steph’s garden right now. I call it ‘Steph’s garden’ because it’s her creation, and she does all the hard work. I don’t get involved, and she prefers it that way. My only contribution is to keep the lawns to the front and rear of our home under control.


And nature’s bounty is on full display on many trees and bushes as fruits begin to form. 2020 looks like an exceptional mast year.

While trees have lost that bright green vibrancy of spring (I’ve already even seen leaves changing color on some trees close to home, but I think that’s more to do with the dry weather we have experienced in recent weeks), they are regaining it through the abundance of fruits that are forming right now, such as the acorns on oak trees everywhere. Or the prickly fruits on the sweet and horse chestnuts.

The bright red berries of the rowan trees in the vicinity hold great promise for the many birds that feast upon them, building up their reserves for the winter ahead, or maybe in preparation for a long migration south. And if I made wines, there seems to be an abundance of elderberries this year as well.

Before long, all these fruitful delights will have been consumed by the local wildlife, or rallen from the boughs. Already I’ve seen many acorns crushed underfoot. From little acorns mighty oak trees grow; but not these. Soon the trees will be bare, the abundance of color in the gardens faded away, and autumn and winter will creep inexorably along.

However, there is always the promise of next spring, and that is always something to look forward to.


 

Two’s company . . .

. . . three’s a crowd. So the saying goes.

Just recently I’ve been thinking about different musical partnerships or collaborations, for reasons that will become apparent towards the end of this blog post.

When it comes to much of the music of the 18th and 19th centuries, it seems that collaborations between composer and librettist weren’t celebrated as such.

Have you ever heard of Lorenzo Da Ponte? You haven’t? I didn’t think so. Neither had I until I searched for information about librettists who collaborated with well-known composers. Da Ponte (left, below) was the librettist for three of Mozart’s most famous operas: Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Così fan tutte.

Or Francesco Maria Piave (right, above) who wrote ten of the librettos for Giuseppe Verdi, including La traviata and Rigoletto.

Funny how we don’t talk about Mozart and Da Ponte as such, an 18th century ‘Rogers and Hammerstein’. I jest.

Some composers like Richard Wagner were masters of music and words. He wrote both the libretto and score for Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly known as The Ring Cycle.

In the late 19th century, the collaboration between dramatist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan resulted in the production of fourteen comic operas such as The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Gondoliers, and The Pirates of Penzance, between 1871 and 1896.

WS Gilbert (L) and Arthur Sullivan (R).

I’ve been a fan of G&S operettas since my early teens, and Ruddigore is a particular favorite. Here’s Vincent Price as Sir Despard Murgatroyd in a 1983 TV production of Ruddigore, opposite ‘Mad Margaret’ played by British actress Ann Howard.

Then if we move on a few decades, the collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II led to a string of Broadway musical hits, such as Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

Surely the most successful musical collaboration of the second half of the 20th century must be John Lennon and Paul McCartney that led to a plethora of Beatles hits and top-selling albums. Even though it seems that each wrote songs more or less individually, these were published under their joint names.

Being a child of the 60s, I was a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel. Still am. While Paul Simon wrote most of the songs during their active years as a duo, Art Garfunkel crafted how the songs were actually performed, the harmonies achieved and the like. They had their rifts, break-ups, yet came together periodically to wow their fans. Just listen to this performance of Sounds of Silence at Madison Square Garden in 2009, forty five years after it was first released. Makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

So this now brings me on to one of the most improbable musical collaborations of recent years, between Robert Plant, front man and bare-chested singer of rock band Led Zeppelin, and Alison Krauss, queen of bluegrass and multiple Grammy award-winning lead of Alison Krauss and Union Station.

What an unlikely coming together of artists from wildly different genres. Yet, it was a match made in heaven. In 2007, Plant and Krauss released an album, Raising Sand, featuring thirteen tracks, and produced by T Bone Burnett (who plays guitar on the video below).

During the pandemic lockdown I’ve continued to take my daily walk, anywhere between 1.5 and almost 4 miles. And increasingly I have been listening to music on my iPod. I have more than 3500 tracks stored, and usually play them in shuffle mode so I never know quite what to expect next.

Just last week, within a minute or so of leaving home, I had the second track on Raising Sand streaming through my head phones. I’ve heard several versions of Killing the Blues (written by Rowland Jon Salley in 1977), but this live version by Plant and Krauss is just perfect, performed on the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland in 2008.

It’s music that just makes me happy . . .

The quiet man of GRC

GRC? It’s short for the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which I had the privilege to lead between July 1991 and April 2001. I’m not sure if GRC is an organizational unit at IRRI anymore having just checked IRRI’s organizational structure dated April 2020.

However, GRC is/was the home of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, the largest of its kind globally for rice. It safely conserves more than 130,000 samples (known as accessions) of cultivated and wild rice species from around the world and, as the most genetically-diverse collection of rice anywhere, it is the foundation for food security in many countries, especially in Asia. Rice breeders have dipped into this valuable resource for almost six decades since IRRI was founded in 1960 and the first germplasm samples brought to Los Baños by my predecessor, Dr TT Chang.

Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño

Anyway, this post is not about me or Dr Chang, but about someone who surely was the quiet man of GRC. Who is this low-key individual?

Why, Renato Reaño of course, known to one and all as ‘Ato’.

Not long after I joined IRRI, it became clear to me that Ato should become my right-hand man for managing all the genebank field operations, from multiplication and rejuvenation of seed samples, as well as establishing and looking after field plots for germplasm characterization (although the actual scoring of the materials was the responsibility for a few years of another colleague, Tom Clemeno, who passed away in 2015).

So, once I’d made an analysis of how the genebank was being managed when I took the helm in 1991, and decided on changes I deemed necessary (not universally accepted by all genebank in the first instance after several decades of working under Dr Chang), I asked Ato to take on the role of Field Operations Manager (although at that time he was officially still only a Research Assistant).

Ato retired from IRRI in March this years after more than 36 years of loyal—and very productive—service to the institute. Over the years, and as his confidence grew, taking on more responsibilities, Ato was promoted to new levels in the IRRI hierarchy, and retired as a Senior Associate Scientist.

Along the way he was elected to lead the IRRI employees association (an excellent indication of the esteem in which his colleagues held him), and he was also elected President of the Crop Science Society of the Philippines (CSSP) for 2006-2007.


Ato helped develop and implement many necessary changes to field operations. What is often not fully appreciated that for the long-term conservation of seeds in a genebank, what happens in the field during the growing season and how seeds are handled through the drying process are as important—if not more so in some respects—than the actual storage conditions. Dr Fiona Hay, a seed physiologist who was hired after I’d passed the GRC baton to my successor Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton in 2002, studied how the drying of seeds could be improved further, and Ato’s role in managing the rice germplasm in the field and the drying after harvest was pivotal. I’ve written about those aspects of rice germplasm management in an August 2015 post.

Ato made the field operations look straightforward. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had to handle thousands of seed samples each planting season, nurturing each one, ensuring there were no mix-ups.

He had a great rapport with his staff. Here he is with some of them in 2017 after they had finished the harvest of more than 4000 samples, and dried them successfully using the new approach that I referred to in the August 2015 post above.

Ato (second from right) with his field staff in 2017. Photo courtesy of Fiona Hay.

Each season (there being two in Los Baños, wet and dry) Ato took responsibility for growing thousands of seed samples, some for the first time after they had been acquired by the genebank, others for routine regeneration if seed viability had declined or seed stocks were running low, or for characterization of the different rices for a whole series of traits, such as days to flowering, plant height, color of grains, and the like.

But to have a better appreciation of Ato’s work in the field and how that contributed to the work of the genebank, just watch this segment, 2:04 – 4:29 minutes in the video below to see for yourselves.

Ato remained the quiet man of GRC during the years I was at the helm, but he constantly grew in confidence, taking his first overseas trip on behalf of the genebank to present a paper at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India in 1995, and eventually being recognised by his peers and elected to the roles I mentioned earlier.

I also relied on Ato to help me interact with GRC staff. If I became aware of a staff ‘situation’ developing (perhaps an unease I could detect as I made my daily visits to every part of the genebank), it would have been difficult for me as Head of GRC, and as a non-Filipino who didn’t speak Tagalog, to easily get to the bottom of things. Then I would ask Ato to help find out what was going on, deal with it if he could, and only elevate issues to me that needed my intervention. This relationship worked well, and I was very grateful to Ato for the management support he provided in this respect.

Thanks for everything that you did, Ato. Your contributions to the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources will long be remembered and appreciated.

With Ato’s retirement, there’s just one of ‘my’ staff left. Genebank Manager Pola de Guzman will also retire later this year. It will finally be the end of the Chang-Jackson-Sackville Hamilton era.