Tuesday, August 27, 2013
I remember the moment I discovered ecology. It was sometime during the year of my second fake ID, sometime between Phish and Dave Matthews and Smashing Pumpkins, sometime after I knew I wasn't going to be a medical researcher, but maybe neuroscience was still on the cards ... sometime before I moved into that crazy, Victorian sharehouse with the hot, flat roof and the view over the Iowa River.
There it was. A whole career out there based on watching animals, and camping trips, and disentangling tiny, warm birds from nets strung out over snow. Seriously.
I was sold.
Over the next decade, I learned the reality. Ecology is hard work and long hours (mostly, for some reason, pre-dawn) and summers of thermal underwear and mud up to your hips and frozen toes and sand-blasted skin and the sweet joy of birth and the heartache of death.
But still. It's awesome.
And for some, there are elephants.
Two days before we left on holidays, Robbie happened to mention to a friend of ours that we were off to Sri Lanka. "Oh!" she said. "I have a colleague studying elephants there - let me introduce you!"
I'll be honest with you - I wasn't there overseeing the conversation, so I'm making up the specifics. The point is, our friend did put us in contact, and we ended up spending 2 days at a research station in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka, with a great guy called Ashoka who studies elephant behaviour.
And even after 17 years studying or researching ecology in one form or another, it still amazes me that people get to do this stuff for a living.
El. e. phants.
They absolutely blew my mind.
Located in south-central Sri Lanka, Udawalawe National Park is about 310 sq km (118 sq mi) in size and has a resident population of some 1000+ wild Asian elephants, which roam freely across the park. Most of these elephants are females and young, who remain in multi-generational family groups. Up close, they were larger than I'd ever imagined, and stronger, and the females had breasts (I'm not kidding. It was - um - unexpected.)
We spent a few breathless hours standing in the back of a jeep, driving along ruddy rutted roads from grassland to waterhole to a place with smooth gray rocks that looked suspiciously like elephants (but, of course, were not). And we met many of the individuals in the population - new mothers, babies, and a lone desiccated female who looked as old as she probably was.
Sometimes even professional ecologists (like us) need to get out into the wilds and reacquainted with real life, in all its sweat and dust and scorching sun. Life outside of words on papers, or grant applications, or numbers in spreadsheets. Regain the wonder.
And try to come up with a way to work on elephants.
I loved Sri Lanka for so many reasons - the people, the culture, the loud markets in busy cities, the quiet walks up overgrowth paths, the wildlife, the food. The FOOD. I have so much to tell you about the food, but I want to start with this: a favourite, simple salad based on greens and onions and coconut. Sri Lankans eat coconut with everything, in everything. We drank water from young coconuts and then spooned out the soft flesh, we ate lentils and rice softened with coconut milk, and salads mixed with freshly-scraped coconut - the "real" version of the desiccated we have here.
This is a great - different - way to use greens like kale that you pick up at the market. I'm prone to tossing greens into quiche or sauteing them up with garlic and olive oil ... the addition of coconut here makes this into something just a little new and exciting.
Which is how I feel about ecology the moment, too.
More soon, I promise.
Hope you're having a great week :)
Sri Lankan Kale + Coconut Salad
We had salads like this many times in Sri Lanka, but this particular recipe I adapted from here - feel free to substitute in your favourite greens, or mix them up. Serve with flatbreads, curries, dahl - or all on its own.
10 min prep + 10 min cooking
1 Tbs olive oil
4 scallions or 1 medium onion, finely chopped
1-2 chillis, finely chopped (seeds make it hotter - your choice to remove or not)
1 large bunch organic kale - washed, de-stemmed and finely chopped + 2-3 Tbs water
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut + 2 Tbs water
1-2 Tbs lime juice
sea salt and black pepper, to taste
*use organic ingredients when you can
1. Mix the coconut with 2 Tbs water and the lime juice and set aside.
2. Saute the onions/scallions and chillies in olive oil over medium heat until translucent. Stir the cumin and the kale into the onion mixture - adding 2-3 Tbs of water as needed to keep the it from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
3. When the kale wilts, remove from heat and add the coconut mixture to it. Mix well, adding salt and pepper, to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Desiccated coconut isn't expensive, so the main cost is your bunch of organic kale. At market prices, I made this salad for $5 ... but I do have some kale growing in my garden ...