Tuesday, September 30, 2008

24 Crazy Hours... and some other thoughts

How much can happen in twenty-four hours? A lot, apparently!

This entry is dedicated to three very special people. You know who you are.

* * * * *

It began with the PKV Committee meeting on the night of 25 September. We convened to select the next committee.

Some will leave, some will stay. Some of those leaving will be handing over their mantle to some of those staying. And some, though not staying, will always remain in the ministry, serving in capacities outside the committee itself.

It was good to remember mercy and grace that night. There we were at the foot of the cross, where we in our guilt and dirt are able to seek a new life, a second chance... again and again.

It was good to remember that if our Master can use us, he can use anybody. Who are we to say what the potter can or can't use for his pottery, or what the chef can or can't use for his dish? I was reminded of Frederick Buechner's words;

"We are fools for Christ's sake," Paul says. You can't put it much more plainly than that. God is foolish too, he says--"the foolishness of God"--just as plainly. God is foolish to choose for his holy work in the world the kind of lamebrains and misfits and nitpickers and holier-than-thous and stuffed shirts and odd ducks and egomaniacs and milquetoasts and closet sensualists as are vividly represented here by you and me..."

--Frederick Buechner, 'The Road Goes On'

Some of us adjourned to Mapley for supper.

If I had the time, maybe I would lie on a couch and pay somebody a thousand pounds an hour to tell me what my friends could tell me on a night out in Dublin.

--Bono, U2

When I read these words two nights ago, I realised it was the very experience I've always had with the d'NAers, and the very experience I had that night, in the wee hours of Friday the 26th, sitting in Kaun's car and confessing things we'd never confess were we in more stable frames of mind.

Personalities will not break up U2. Musical differences will not break up U2. We'll break up because somebody squeezed the toothpaste from the wrong end.

--Larry Mullen Jr, U2

And guess what? It also happens that we talked about toothpaste in the car! Li Ern and Kaun swear by squeezing from the bottom, while I just whack the tube from the middle. I can't remember Ai Wei's choice... :-P

We drove up Bukit Cinta in an attempt to catch the sunrise, but it was an overcast dawn. So we went down to KPS in hopes of better prospects at the lake. Ruth joined us at KPS, and though half-asleep, we were still able to reflect on the Word and pray.

Once we were done, Ann Gie passed us on the way to her class.

(One of the perks of using a super wide-angle: camwhore-style group shots... if you don't mind the inevitable distortion, that is.)

So we returned to our respective colleges to retire for awhile, before getting up for PKV Meeting at 12.00 p.m. (I had to get up earlier as I was to run through the songs with Suzanne.)

Sivin loves post-meeting makan sessions. I suppose that is why BLC always serves 'lunch' after service every Sunday. "That's where the real conversations are," he says.

(This wasn't a posed shot. It happens I pressed the shutter at that very moment; even I didn't know it at the time.)

He came to speak on Elijah, and challenged us to play our part in continuing the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ. "Maybe this is more of a Bible Exploration than a Bible Exposition." Well said, Sivin!

Ai Wei failed to wake up for PKV Meeting and was most shocked when I called to tell her it was already 3.00 p.m. Nonetheless, we had a great evening with Tim and Li Ern at Mid Valley. (Many thanks to Kaun for sending us there; he decided not to join us as he had to work that evening.)

Tim dropped Li Ern off at college as she had an appointment with friends at Saisaki in KL (where she had seven scoops of ice-cream... dessert perfection), while Ai Wei and I watched Mamma Mia! after shopping at Carrefour (she needed supplies for the Raya break, during which she would be staying in college) and having a snack at McDonald's.

Tim later joined us for 'dinner' at the mamak restaurant opposite Starbucks. The twenty-four hours were taking their toll on me, and I fell asleep over a plate of finished ghee thosai. And so the adventure ended when Tim sent me and Ai Wei back to college.

I had barely enough rest before the next day dawned upon me: eight hours at Rimba Ilmu followed by Popo's birthday dinner.

* * * * *

Sivin, Yen and Adelene use the Canon Powershot A720 IS, which I unreservedly recommend as easily the best compact camera out there in terms of balance of performance and affordability. Those with too much money should get the Canon Powershot G9 IS.

No prizes for guessing who's most likely to upgrade to an SLR! ;-)

* * * * *

I have been reading Micah of late, and these are four verses that continue to encourage and challenge me. I firmly believe that if the first could come true, so can the other three, for I yearn for the day when I shall be free from sin.

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times."

"I will destroy your carved images
and your sacred stones from among you;
you will no longer bow down
to the work of your hands."

"Because I have sinned against him,
I will bear the LORD's wrath,
until he pleads my case
and establishes my right.
He will bring me out into the light;
I will see his righteousness."

"You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea."

--Micah 5:2,13; 7:9,19 (NIV)

It was timely for Sivin to speak on Elijah, and to remind us that the greatest sin has always been idolatry, i.e. the sin of substituting the true God with a fake. In this present age, it gets more subtle. Few will fall for a block of wood or stone, but haven't we carved careers and manufactured dreams we worship?

Do we always strive to be made in God's image, or are we at times (or perhaps even often) found yearning after man's image, or our own image?

* * * * *

Yesterday, I read this in The Star:


Ali Rustam (Malacca's Chief Minister) is using biodegradable (even edible!) plates made from tapioca at his Hari Raya Open House. I'd really love to be there to experience this landmark moment.

I don't think we need any more proof that polystyrene and plastic packaging (especially polystyrene, which is not only non-biodegradable, but also non-recyclable) is not the way to go.

Point is, we have the intelligence, we have the expertise, we have the technology. What we don't have, and yet ironically what all of us can supply, is the demand.

Selamat Hari Raya, Malaysia!

Going Places: Ecology Begins!

This semester has been defined by labwork and field trips, punctuated frequently by PKV intervals.

What follows is a brief glance at the field trips we've been on so far. The visit to the Klang Gates Ridge is featured on my birthday entry.

* * * * *

Insect Biology: Ulu Gombak, 29-31 August

We spent three days over the Merdeka weekend at the Ulu Gombak Field Studies Centre, which belongs to UM. It is a popular place with foreign scientists, and Prof Sofian said that a team from the University of Cambridge once gassed a single tree and collected the insects that fell from it; five years elapsed and they still hadn't finished studying the specimens.

This is one of my favourite pictures from the trip, and I daresay my best of Thary (or the future Professor Thary) to date.

Professor Dr Sofian Azirun, lecturer and one of the Deputy Deans of the Science Faculty. The wild durians were ripe and a number of us feasted on them while hiking in search of insects.

Something between a fossil and a hidden treasure, Haji Mokhtar Ibrahim (or Pak Haji as we call him) has been serving the university since the days when Professor Sofian was an undergraduate. He's retired, but still roped in on field trips and lab sessions because of his vast knowledge and experience.

On a clump of Sealing Wax Palms (Cyrtostachys lakka) near the classroom building at the centre, a Signature Spider nests. Here, the male (much smaller, to the left) is presumably approaching the female prior to mating. I'm not sure if the dead insect in the female's jaws is a gift from the male, but it could well be.

Is the spider in the sky, or is its web over a pool of water, or neither? It was a most unusual angle, and I think the only thing ruining the picture is the dust on the spider's web, which unfortunately looks like in-camera dust.

We had to aggressively keep watch over our insect specimens as this colony of ants was very efficient in translocating insects placed on the windowside worktop where the microscopes were. To give an idea of scale, the needle piercing the moth is so thin it can travel through a human's blood capillaries.

In general, and in principle, Thary has little patience for my photography. Unless, however, I am photographing a subject he is greatly interested in, which explains the shot of the Baeckea at the Klang Gates Ridge, and this. On our way back from exploring the river on the evening of Day 2, Thary spotted this giant millipede. A rather lengthy photoshoot naturally ensued.

On the third day, Shannon and I rose early to make time exposures of the river in the early morning light. It was a fun experience, and I will always remember this river as the agent that stole How's appetite.

This is the class, after we'd collected samples from a river not far from the centre. I'm loving my Gorillapod more and more!

On the night of 30 August, I realised this was my first Merdeka without fireworks. At home, or anywhere in town, it would be possible--even inevitable--to hear the fireworks. But there we were, isolated in a jungle not far from the city, yet far enough to shield us from the sound of celebration.

As I reflect on the noise in the country (celebratory, political and otherwise) versus the voice of God in the wilderness, it became a little clearer to me what my calling might be.

It was as if God was saying, "People will shout for all kinds of reasons and for as long as they have the voice to shout. But put your hand to the work that will last forever; be a steward of that which I have created and keep working. Keep working no matter who the rulers are or what they say. Here in the wilderness you will find Me."

And perhaps, in the wilderness also, I found myself.

* * * * *

Advanced Ecology: Pulau Ketam, 1 September

We were supposed to study the ecology of kampung populations as one of our projects for the course (which, by the way, should be called 'Basic Ecology'). So about half the class went to Ulu Yam and half to Pulau Ketam. All of this was done in the absence of Prof Susan, who was away in France at the time.

So infertile is the soil, that almost all non-mangrove plants must be cultivated in specially prepared (i.e. imported from the mainland) soil. This is one place you won't find papaya trees growing out of drains.

Pulau Ketam is famous for its seafood restaurants, but I never imagined their temples would be adorned by statues of seafood! What happened to the more common phoenix and dragon?

Bicycles and boardwalks; the quintessence of connection and communication on Pulau Ketam. This is proof that my camera's LCD screen doesn't do justice to shadow detail; during playback in-camera, I couldn't see the bicycle.

* * * * *

Tropical Forest Ecology: FRIM, 6 September

I used the wide-angle for this shot of the class beneath the majestic Dryobalanops aromatica (a.k.a. crown-shyness) trees. Here, Mr Yong is describing the Ganoderma fungus.

One of the things I remember most on this trip was what Mr Sugu said when we were in a rather narrow stretch of the trail.

"If you can't hear me, try to pack a little closer. If there's no space on the trail, walk into the forest [i.e. stand between the trees]. Pelajar ekologi hutan tropika tak boleh takut kotor, tak boleh takut pacat, tak boleh takut pokok. [Tropical forest ecology students must not be afraid of dirt, leeches or trees.]"

* * * * *

Marine Ecosystems: Morib, 20 September

Sampling of organisms in the Littoral or Intertidal Zone along the beach at Pintu Gedong. Our trip was timed to coincide with the tide, which was expected to be at its lowest around 3.00 p.m. We arrived by 1.00 and so had time to familiarise ourselves with some of the locals at Morib, namely...

The common Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) is extremely comfortable around humans here.

And yes, they are gluttons. Come armed with biscuits or any other tidbits; they make an excellent bait if you want to observe or photograph the macaques up-close.

Professor Chong Ving Ching, present Head of the Ecology and Biodiversity division at UM.

Digging for burrowing organisms during low tide. We found a good number of clams, crabs, snails and worms. From left: Shannon, Divya, Noni and Azizi. Shannon was the only fellow ecologist in our group; the other three are Environmental Management students.

There were also a number of pigeons on the coast. This was shot while I chased one of them; I really should do this more frequently...

* * * * *

Tropical Forest Ecology: Rimba Ilmu Herbarium, 27 September

Shannon, How, Thary, Saiedah and I missed the trip to Gunung Ulu Kali (in the vicinity of Genting Highlands) as it clashed with our Insect Biology field trip. So we had to substitute it with a day's work at Rimba Ilmu.

(Dad is right; these trips should be planned in advance so as not to clash. Mr Sugu planned the Tropical Forest Ecology trips at the beginning of the semester, but Prof Sofian took some time. The clash could have been avoided.)

At first, Mr Yong intended for us to help clean up the Shade House in the botanic garden, but the officer in charge wasn't around on Saturday; nevertheless, Shannon and I have volunteered to help out whenever it might be done. So it was that we spent some eight hours mounting plant samples (leaves, fruit, buds etc) for the Herbarium's vault collection.

These ominous lockers store innumerable plant mounts which collectively serve as a plant identification database.

Mr Yong greeted us that morning in pyjama-like (i.e. very homely) trousers and a large-ish mug. It made the few of us wonder if he spent the night at Rimba Ilmu. (This picture was taken towards the end of our session.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Thoughts after Amazing Grace

We watched Amazing Grace during PKV Meeting last Friday. These are some of the lines that stirred me most.

"I don't just dust your books, sir."
William Wilberforce's manservant, when Wilberforce was surprised he quoted Francis Bacon.

"We're too young to realise some things are impossible."
William Pitt to Wilberforce, looking futurewards.

"For God's sake, see it through!"
John Newton to Wilberforce, who was veering between life as a minister and an abolitionist.

"I was blind, but now I see. And now it is true!"
Newton, almost blind, reflecting on the experience of dictating his life story. It was only much later in life that he became a Christian in the full sense of the word.

My favourite conversation in the movie takes place at the brink of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, at a time when any Englishman seeming to go against the Crown and popular English opinion would be easily considered guilty of sedition.

Wilberforce was frustrated that Pitt, his good friend, seemed somewhat conservative in his opinions and advice.

"As your Prime Minister I urge caution."
"And as my friend?"
"Oh, to hell with caution."

PKV Convo 2008: Pictures Up!

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All pictures copyright (c) Persaudaraan Kristian Varsiti Universiti Malaya 2008.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Two Thoughts on Ecology

While walking George last weekend, it occurred to me that very little specialist knowledge is employed in ecology.

It is a statement that must be qualified; what I mean is that we don't learn about nucleotide base sequences or learn how to cultivate and examine bacterial cultures, much less perform analyses on the biochemistry of organisms. Of course, all of these can be gainfully applied in ecology, but one doesn't need such knowledge to do ecology.

When Dr Normaniza Osman said a year ago that students in the Ecology & Biodiversity and Environmental Management divisions simply jalan-jalan cari makan, she was not at all wrong.

While walking George, I was convinced that ecology is about walking about and making trips to all sorts of places and seeing all the life around us. It's about opening our eyes to the wonders 99% of humanity rushes by.

And so there really isn't much specialist 'knowledge', unless you take into account the plethora of scientific names and classification maps we are subject to. In just two months I have learnt so much more than I ever had in the last 21 years of my life; one would think I was some sort of god the way some of my friends react when I make random comments on the plants and animals we casually encounter.

* * * * *

Talking to Li Ern this morning about long-distance relationships and prayer and waiting for God's answers, I realised just how much training to be an ecologist has shaped me in these areas.

Of all the fields of biology (and perhaps also in many other scientific and non-scientific disciplines), ecology is the only one in which the biologist/practitioner cannot force something to happen. The biotechnologist can tweak with an organism's genes until a favourable progeny is obtained; the microbiologist can play around with the yeast culture; the engineer perfects the device to suit given requirements; the farmer manipulates the land to produce a good crop.

But the ecologist confronts his/her subject (i.e. nature) on its own terms. Nothing can be done to make Proboscis Monkeys appear where there are none. And ecology involves a lot of waiting, especially where animal observation is concerned. Even when it comes to plants, a lot of waiting may be involved; seed dormancy may result in the temporary scarcity of plants generally considered to be abundant in an area.

* * * * *

Waiting, observing, approaching not on my own terms, throwing myself into a world larger, wilder and more fascinating than anything I can ever imagine...

This must be where I was born to be.