Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Tree Stories

"Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness."
~ Khalil Gibran

Just when I thought that I could not possibly fit another item into my already packed weekend schedule, the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Nature Guides announced that it was holding another botany workshop, entitled "Getting To Know The Local Stars of FRIM", conducted by my friend, FRIM botanist Lim Chung Lu. And so in between organising the office departmental retreat, the MNS Selangor Open Day and doing animal care work at the SPCA, I managed to arrive at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) in time for the much-anticipated workshop on indigenous flora.

(Dyera costulata)

The Jelutong is a tall deciduous tree with relatively light and soft wood. Its wood is used in pencil production, and its resin is chewed as gum. The leaves of the jelutong are spatulate in shape and whorled in arrangement from the end of the twig.

The stingless bee frequently chooses the trunk of the Ironwood (Local name: Tembusu Padang, scientific name: Fagraea fragrans) to build its home due to the deep fissures in the bark.

The Ironwood (Local name: Tembusu Padang, Latin name: Fagraea fragrans) has deep, steep-ridged fissures in its trunk. Its wood is hard and frequently made into chopping boards.

The Damar Minyak (Agathis borneensis) tree has dippled bark and ovate leaves. It produces softwood timber, and its aromatic resin is said to ward off black magic and evil spirits.

Intact male pollen cones of the Damar Minyak (Agathis borneensis).

The Belinjau / Meninjau (Gnetum gnemon) tree, from which we get our belinjau crackers.

The Mata Lembu (Firmiana malayana) has tri-lobed leaves with a heart-shaped base. It sheds all its leaves during the dry season.

Upun Batu
(Upuna borneensis)

The Upun Batu is a dipterocarp with heavy hardwood. Its bark has a cracked and flaking appearance. It is listed in the IUCN Red List as endangered.

So that's where the smell of garlic toast came from! The fruit of the Kulim / Bawang Hutan tree (Scorodocarpus borneensis) smells strongly of garlic, and is said to have antimicrobial qualities.

"Skorodos" is Greek for garlic.
"Karpos" means fruit.

There was an immediate and perceptible drop in the temperature when we stood under the trees. Each part of the tree plays a role in climate control. Leaves absorb or deflect solar heat and improve air quality. Foliage density has an effect on wind speed and direction. Root systems act as a watershed and reduce storm runoffs. Never forget that trees are our friends.

Some asked how to tell if a mushroom is poisonous to humans.

According to my SAS Survival Handbook, you must break off a piece and rub it on your underarm. Wait an hour.
If there is no allergic reaction, break off another piece and rub it on your chin. Wait an hour.
If there is no allergic reaction, break off another piece and rub it on your lower lip. Wait an hour.
If there is no allergic reaction, break off another piece and chew it and spit it out. Wait an hour.
If there is no allergic reaction, break off a small piece, chew it and swallow it. Wait two hours.
If there is no allergic reaction, you can presume the mushroom is safe to eat.

I wrote back to the author and told him I would have died of starvation by then.

The most recognisable tree in the rainforest.

Tongkat Ali
(Eurycoma longifolia)

Compound leaves with terminal leaflets. Crowded at twig tip. Lovely to look at. Tastes awful as heck.

Daun Payung (Literally, Umbrella Leaf)

(Johannesteijsmannia altifrons)

Most railroad sleepers are made of Kempas, a durable hardwood. Disused railroad sleepers are often reclaimed by the construction, furniture and landscaping industries.

Penaga Lilin pyrotechnics!

The most distinctive feature of the Penaga Lilin is its leaves, which crack and pop when burnt. This is due to the fact that its elliptic leaves have a waxy white underside (to reduce water loss by transpiration) which acts as a waterproof sealant. The trapped air-space pops and cracks when burnt.

"Trees have always been talking to us but we have forgotten how to listen."
- Michael Roads

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Volunteer Power on Vesākha!

"However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.
However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.
However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.
However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it"

~ The Four Great Vows in Buddhism

Although I profess the religions of Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism, I spend very little time on scriptures and worship. But what I do know intuitively is that religion should give us hope, strength, courage and a moral compass. Religion should never promote suffering and sacrifice. My primary role is to be a good human being and to put my values and beliefs into practice. What is good for others must necessarily be good for me. And due to the strength of my beliefs that I am living my life in the way that my religions would want me to, I feel no guilt about the fact that I go to the temples so infrequently.

This year I spent even less time on prayer than usual on Vesākha, as I had made prior arrangements to volunteer with Sampah Masyarakat in a joint cleanup and greening project with another environmental organisation, TrEES (Treat Every Environment Special), at the Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields.

Despite the fact that Vesākha ("Wesak Day" is really just the Sinhalese name for it) is a national public holiday, it wasn't a UN holiday this year and so I was at work all day and could only volunteer for the 1900h - 2300h shift. Still, I managed to reach the Vihara at 1830h and complete my shift by 2330h, and I was pleased with all that we have accomplished in one day.

The Buddhist Maha Vihara cleanup and greening campaign was far more successful and orderly than the Thaipusam Mega Cleanup. The two organisations set up recycling bins throughout the Maha Vihara temple complex and stationed volunteers on shifts to ensure that the public and temple staff sorted their waste and disposed of them in the correct bins. I doubt we would have received the same level of cooperation and understanding at the Batu Caves temple complex!
(Photo credits: Shyam Priah)

Volunteers Melvin and Leela from TrEES collecting used cooking oil for reuse. Well, you know who to thank for not clogging up the drains of Brickfields with cooking grease!
(Photo credits: Shyam Priah)

Sampah Masyarakat volunteer Hariharan sorts food and plant waste for composting.
(Photo credits: Shyam Priah)

The beautifully illuminated Vihara, when I arrived for my shift in the late evening.

The main prayer hall all aglow.

Devotees lighting joss sticks and candles and offering prayers at the numerous shrines throughout the Maha Vihara temple complex.

A revolving, colour-changing lantern display in the Vihara grounds.

4 of the Sampah Masyarakat volunteers: From left, Hariharan, Shyam (the founder), me and Petri.

Leela of TrEES sorting the waste for recycling at the basement. I am awed and humbled by her dedication and unflagging energy.

Guess how long it took 3 of us to cut open, flatten, stack and transport this mountain of cardboard boxes?
No more than 10 mins.

Recyclables waiting for collection in the basement.
"Vow #1: "However innumerable the recyclables are, I vow to save them from the landfill."

Mat and Leela of TrEES sorting and bagging up the recyclables. They amaze me. They've been at it since 0600 hrs.

I finished my shift at 2330 hrs and was about to leave when I saw a troupe of Kandyan dancers making their way into the Vihara. What fun and excitement! It was an unexpected but fitting reward for the hours of hard work.

I trust that the good people at the Vihara will continue the legacy of good waste management practices started by TrEES and Sampah Masyarakat, as they demonstrated examplary cooperation, interest and enthusiasm. I wish all faith groups would place as much emphasis on creating a safe, healthy, clean and livable environment for all living beings and ecosystems.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

A Thor-oughly Good Time

Film Review: Thor

Superhero movies generally follow one of several tried-and-tested formulas. The initial part of the movie normally revolves around one of three plots, namely:
(i) The superhero is of extraterrestrial or mutant origins and is imbued with superhuman powers from the start, and later decides to use this power to the benefit of the human race, unworthy souls though we may be. (Superman, Hellboy, Thor)
(ii) The superhero acquires special powers through some accident, extraterrestrial encounter, exposure to radiation or scientific experiment gone awry, and spends a significant amount of time getting used to these powers before he is able to use these powers to his advantage. (Spiderman, Hellblazer, The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine).
(iii) The superhero is a mortal with no super powers and is equipped with nothing more than a superior intellect and the resources to build fantastic gadgets. He normally also possesses crime-fighting skills befitting SAS commandos and martial arts grandmasters. These superheroes are usually also playboys and heirs to untold wealth. (Batman, Iron Man, Green Lantern).

The later part of the movie usually revolves around the superhero’s efforts to incapacitate the evil machinations of a super villain or to stop a chain of events with particularly dire consequences on Planet Earth or the human race. There is usually also a romantic subplot involving the superhero’s efforts to conceal his alter ego from a mortal love interest, which is usually successful, proving that a mask, a pair of glasses or a different hairstyle is often all you need as disguise in the fantasy world.

Often linked to this subplot is another subplot revolving around the superhero’s weakness, be it the love interest, who is susceptible to being kidnapped, or an external object or resource capable of compromising the superhero’s powers (e.g. Kryptonite).

“Thor” doesn’t deviate from the standard superhero movie formula. What makes it worth watching, then, apart from the fact that it has breathtaking special effects, and a physically appealing protagonist?

“Thor”, to me, is more than a movie about using one’s special powers for the greater good. To me, it isn’t even a movie extolling the virtues of humility and grace. It isn’t a movie about the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery and self-realisation. It is a movie about the triumph of friendship and loyalty over treaties bound by lesser ties. It is a movie not just about loss and sacrifice, but also about teamwork, responsibility and leadership. Most importantly, to me it carries a strong message about the necessity of circumventing bad laws, and the courage to defy weak, corrupt and oppressive leaders. The God of Thunder isn’t the only hero in this comic book adaptation. To be honoured and applauded are Heimdall the valorous gatekeeper, and Thor’s stout-hearted companions, Volstagg, Fandral, Hogun and Sif. And this is what makes the alliance of warriors in “Thor” heroes after my own heart.

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Weekly Roundup With Photos:

The past week has been a family-oriented one, partly to make up for the fact that I spend so much time on work and volunteer commitments. I had spent the last two Saturdays at the SPCA as usual -- bathing and tickwashing dogs, cleaning the catteries and kennels, drafting press releases, training new volunteers, and counselling potential adopters and people who wished to surrender their animals. There has been many reports on animal abuse and cruelty cases in the media lately, and so we have our work cut out both trying to engage the authorities and trying to placate the outraged and emotional public. Seems to me like no one else knows how to draft something that sounds neutral and rational and which offers solutions. Everyone else seems to think that being dramatic, emotional and accusatory is the order of the day. I have been driven to the point of exasperation on many occasions.

With only 3 weeks to go until the Malaysian Nature Society Open Day, there are also volunteers to be recruited, official approval to be obtained, equipment to prepare and prizes to source.

I had spent Mothers’ Day cleaning the parental home and treating Covert Mum to a facial session. I had later taken the parents out to a nearby cafe for dinner to avoid the crowds in downtown restaurants. I took Friday off to take the parents to watch “Thor” and to have lunch at one of their favourite restaurants before going back to the office in the evening to clear a few files and complete some research. My canine and feline children, including the Project Second Chance rescues, are doing well. For these small blessings, I consider my life fortunate beyond measure.

Oscar had a bad case of mange when he first came to me. After undergoing 3 courses of Ivermectin, he is now a handsome little heartbreaker.

Oscar has been vaccinated, dewormed and given 2 flea baths. He should be ready for neutering in a month. I hope we are able to find him a loving home.

Hopscotch was very sick with worms and fleas when I first found him behind the air-conditioning unit in my office. I had him vaccinated and I treated him for fleas and worms myself. The worst is over, and Hopscotch will survive, although he remains extremely thin.

Hopscotch eats 2 bowls of wet food and kitten milk replacer a day, and has consumed his weight in Nutrigel, Liv .52 and pet vitamins, yet he looks positively skeletal. I will need to deworm him again soon. I hope he will gain sufficient weight and strength in a month when I put him up for adoption.

The SPCA shelter dogs observing the visitors observing them.

The SPCA shelter dogs find a quiet corner to rest in after their bath.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

A belated birthday celebration for my buddy Nicole at Marco’s Pizza last night. Nicole attempts food photography after we had started on the penne.

Our yummy thin-crust vegetarian pizza.

The velvety, rich and absolutely decadent tiramisu, which our birthday girl enjoyed.

Covert Operations, Out.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Kickin' It In Singapore

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
~ The legendary Bill Shankly.

When the weight of ennui in one's daily life becomes unbearable, you know it's time to throw yourself into team sports. Football resumed being the top priority in my life 2 months ago, and football helped my life stay structured and sane during a very difficult time. Although there were days when I felt as though the dark clouds in my mind would never lift, mustering the self-discipline to get up and leave the house to play football helped me focus my energies on being part of a team and putting the team first.

All the practice and training my team and I underwent was for the Annual Bench and Bar Games between the Malaysian Bar and the Singapore Law Society. Although Malaysia often faces little difficulty in trumping Singapore in the Games, Women's Football is an event in which the Malaysian side has yet to experience victory. Still, this does not discourage us from doing our best.

Our match took place at the SAFRA Tampines sports grounds on Labour Day, and I had travelled to Singapore by bus. I stayed with Covert Big Bro and Covert Sis-In-Law for the 4 days that I was in Singapore and spent a lot of time catching up with my friends, both 4-legged and 2-legged.

Hello again, SPCA Singapore! I've missed you! It's good to be back! It was a rather wet Saturday morning but I had arranged to meet up with my buddies, Mun Yee and Rachel, at the SPCA. I took the MRT to Bartley Station and arrived at the SPCA even before it had opened to visitors for the day.

Cats taking five in the Cattery. I asked the SPCA if I could be of use in the Cattery, but they said that I am not allowed to clean litter trays or baskets unless I have undergone their Volunteer Induction Programme. Ohhh-kay. So they want to make sure I haven't got a previous conviction for stealing soiled kitty litter.

Sad Puppy: "I is bored. I wants to come out."
Me: "Okies. Out you come."
Puppy: *Gnaw gnaw gnaw*

"Cos we are baaaack together again! And we are a force to be reckoned with!"
(From left to right: Rachel, me and Mun Yee)
I had missed Mun Yee when she took up a job offer in Singapore. It was good that we were able to stay in daily contact especially with the help of social media networks.

Mun Yee the dog bite victim seems unfazed by the attack on her by Casey, a Siberian husky-cross.

Here we are at the hotel lobby getting ready for physical training on Sat. I remember telling our goalie Soo Lung that we'll play catenaccio defence, but during the match the following day, everything was really chaotic and nobody stayed in position. Nothing new here.

At the hotel lobby with Coach Lanti (in the blue polo) on the afternoon of our match. Malaysia was leading by one point on Sat afternoon. Before we stumbled at cricket and women's football, that is. But we still won the Games in the end!

Clowning around on the team bus to the match grounds. I knew by now, with a good dose of self-realisation, that the only way we could even hope for a draw is to pray for a lightning storm that would stop the match. All I can say is that our team does not have the tenacity, commitment and drive seen in our Singaporean counterparts. We were informed that they trained as a team all year round. We, on the other hand, could not even muster 6 players for our practice matches and had to "import" players from other clubs. The younger players have never even worn their studded boots onto the pitch until the day of the match.

Grumpus Wumpus getting ready on the bus to the match grounds. I had lost one of the velcro straps to my shin guards and had improvised with surgical tape.

... And the referee is left eating dust.
Everything looks a bit crazy from where I was standing in the Reserves. Someone playing dirty, someone getting a headbutt, a rugby scrum going on somewhere in our third of the field. Same old, same old.

Bit of confusion there. I think it's our ball for the throw-in.

A team photo is in order even though we lost by a wide margin. Better luck next year, if we can get the juniors to come for practice often enough, that is.

Jac-Jac having a fit on the bus after the game. No, not really. She pulled a muscle in her left leg. We didn't spare her the ignominy of being ribbed. "Amputate her leg, Coach, amputate!" we chorused.

Jac-Jac, me, Rachel and Mun Yee waiting to be seated at the Orchid Country Club where we were to have our farewell dinner.

The football team has had enough of dressing up in identical outfits and rose to the occasion for the farewell dinner.

The food was appalling but the company was genial. Singaporean food is just Malaysian food washed under running tap water. I was given many dishes with mock meat in it. By the time the 3rd course arrived, I had to decline it as I could feel my blood pressure hitting the roof due to all the sodium and monosodium glutamate.

A parting haiku for the aolo bus ride home:
A reluctant rain
Anoints green-crowned sentries in my
Chiaroscuro world.