Week 31/2022: On birds and zinc

Week of 1 August 2022

A part of a rainbow on a big cloud and some blue sky
Sunday morning rainbow

On birds and zinc

Friday was the start of the Beaker Street Festival, which is a ten-day science extravaganza across lutruwita/Tasmania.

Lil Sis and I signed up to the session “Science and Storytelling at the Zinc Works” on Sunday, which was held at the Nyrstar zinc smelter in Lutana.

A 20th century brick office block with a white sign with the word Nystar
Nystar HQ

This event featured storytellers Young Dawkins, who we’d heard briefly at the Shapeshifting event a few months back, and Jackie Kerin. Their brief was to tell us stories about “The journey of zinc” and the migratory birds in the area.

Todd Milne, Nyrstar’s global head of environment, began the session by introducing the site and its history. He talked about the environmental challenges with the site that included having to deal with the legacies of past practices at the site, such as stockpiling dangerous chemicals extracted from the zinc refining process and the layers of chemicals currently on the river bed of the Derwent.

Todd handed over to Young, who held the audience captive with his interpretation of the story of zinc, from its earliest discovery to his vision of the Nyrstar site in 25 years time. He imagined that, in partnership with the University, Nystar had been able to rehabilitate the river and we’d see whales in a part of the river they hadn’t been seen for over 100 years.

A man standing at a lectern in front of a sign with two faces and the words The Beaker Street Festival
Young Dawkins in action

The beautiful part of the story was that, just before the event had begun, we’d seen dolphins swimming past the factory, almost as if they’d known what Young was going to say.

I learned a lot more about zinc from Young than I’d ever known. To me, it was that white stuff cricket players put on their faces to not get sunburnt and it’s in the mineral supplement I sometimes take. But, of course, it has many more uses than this. “What can it do?” Young asked. “What is it good for? Quite a lot,” he said, as he outlined some of its many functions. Galvanising steel for the construction of the “soaring skyscrapers that punctuate the world’s cities”. (I love that description.)

It has medical uses too. It cures eye inflammation and may reduce macular degeneration. It can also reduce the severity of a common cold, but use too much in a nasal spray and you may lose your sense of smell. It’s useful, Young said, but highly dangerous. As Paraclesus, the Swiss physician and philosopher said, only the dose determines whether something is medicine or poison.

And the most fascinating thing of all that I never knew. At the moment of conception between a human egg and sperm, the egg releases a spark of zinc. Without this, conception doesn’t occur. Amazing!

Young went on to talk about his recent tour of the site he describes as “one of the great cathedrals of mineral processing and metallurgy”. Built in 1916, the site had four things its favour: access to hydroelectricity, deep water for a port, available land, and willing workers to build and operate the plant. He said there were over 1000 pipes on the site, which formed around 500km of pipelines. Young’s description of his tour made many people in the audience  eager to find out if there might be public tours in the near future, but apparently this isn’t something that happens very often. So we’ll have to wait for the next open day.

Young certainly made the story of zinc more accessible than it had ever been in any science class I’d been to and, listening to him speak, I wondered if there was anything he couldn’t make interesting.

Our second storyteller was Jackie Kerin, who uses “stories to inspire and empower people of all ages to be strong voices for nature”.

Jackie uses the Japanese kamishibai form of storytelling, which is like a cross between a picture book and an animation. It involves a wooden box that’s a frame for the pictures that tell the story, and Jackie took us back in time to hear about what some of the early scientists thought happened to migrating birds.

A woman standing with a wooden story board in front of a sign with two faces and the words The Beaker Street Festival
Jackie telling the story of the birds with the aid of the kamishibai

I think Aristotle’s theory that some birds transform themselves into another species over winter was reasonable, based on him seeing the redstarts disappearing in winter and robins arriving in Greece around the same time. The theory that sparrows hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds was interesting, but not quite in the ballpark either.

Jackie said the first person to get on the right track was Charles Morton, in the 17th century, who thought they flew to the moon. Scientists started to clue onto what actually happened when a German stork arrived back from its annual migration sporting an arrow through its neck of the type that was found in Africa, suggesting it hadn’t quite gone to the moon, but had still flown a long way. With the arrow stuck through its neck.

Jackie said the unfortunate bird had been taxidermied, arrow and all, and can still be seen in a museum today.

The first people to track a migratory bird were scientists in New Zealand, who tracked the flight of a bar-tailed godwit (kuaka) they called E7. Through the kamishibai, Jackie told us the story of E7’s epic journey, which began with seven days of flight from New Zealand to China, where she stayed on the feeding ground a while to build up her strength for the second leg of the flight to the arctic breeding grounds.

Seven days of non-stop flying! A little bird over a massive ocean. It seems unbelievable, yet these birds do this every year.

E7 flew on to the breeding ground in the arctic tundra, where they imagine she raised some chicks. They would have hatched and fledged within about two months. “That quick,” said Jackie. And once the chicks had fledged, they’d have to find their own way home. E7 would leave them behind and fly back to New Zealand non-stop on an eight-day journey. The batteries in the tracker lasted the whole time, and the tracker showed over the six months she had flown over 29,000 km.

A brown shore bird with a long, thin beak on the beach
Bar-tailed godwit (JJ Harrison/ Wikipedia creative commons)

You can read about her flight here.

Interestingly, about 12 months ago, one of these godwits landed on the beach near where I live, on its way home from the breeding grounds. A local scientist who had seen it noted that it would have lost half its bodyweight on the flight and would be desperately looking for food. He said that these birds are in rapid decline, primarily because the stopover mudflats that they rely on for feeding up on their northwards migration have been impounded and drained for industrial development or agriculture.

And this is why Jackie left us with the message that we need to speak up for the birds!

Both storytellers were wonderful in very different ways, and the event left me feeling that we really do have an amazing world. There is so much to learn, see and explore. I wondered if in future, people will think the same about some of our current scientific theories as we think about the early theories of bird migration.

It also reminded me we will never know all there is to know. How dull life would be if we did.

Thanks to Beaker Street, Nyrstar, Young and Jackie for a lovely afternoon.

22 for 2022 update

I completed all the modules of the romance writing course (thing 20) and just have some bonus interviews with authors to listen to at my leisure, so I’m comfortable saying I’ve completed the course.

I did some more work on my learning repository (thing 12), but I’m starting to feel like I’m drowning in information and it’s time to put some of it into action.

I looked in the scoby cupboard (thing 5) and decided to leave that for another week. I didn’t have time to deal with it this week. I also didn’t get time to look at the Mindset work (thing 1).

22 for 2022 summary

  • Things completed to date: 8 (8, 10, 11, 13, 18, 19, 20, 22)
  • Things completed this week: 20
  • Things I worked on this week: 3: (12, 20, 21)
  • Things in progress: 4 (1, 5, 12, 21)
  • Things not started: 2 (14, 17)
  • Things that are parked until the end of September: 6 (2, 3, 4, 6, 15, 16)
  • Things I’m not going to do: 2 (7, 9)

What do I want to do next week?

Keep working on my shoulder and start editing my photo project photos. Also listen to some of the author interviews from the romance writing course. And go and have a look at the scoby hotel . . Does anyone want to come with me?

Weekly summary

What was the best thing about this week?

So many good things. The stories at the zinc works. A webinar on storytelling to create change. And learning the story behind the set of Edward Scissorhands, which we watched on Friday night.

A suburban street of pastel coloured houses and cars
The fabulous suburban setting of Edward Scissorhands (20th Century Fox)

What I’m reading this week

  • Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain
  • The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner

Habit tracker

  • Days I went for a walk in the morning (Goal = 5): 7
  • No phone at breakfast (Goal = 6): 6
  • Days I did my morning planning routine at work (Goal = 5): 5
  • Days I did controlled breathing (Goal = 7): 7
  • No phone at lunch time (Goal = 5): 5
  • Days I did my post-work pack up routine (Goal = 5): 5
  • Finish work by 5.30 (Goal = 4): 5
  • Days I worked on my art (Goal = 2): 1
  • Days I read a book (Goal = 7): 7
  • Days I went for a walk or did other physical activity in the afternoon (Goal = 5): 4
  • Days I shut my computer down before 9.30 (Goal = 6): 6
  • Weekly review at work: Yes
  • Weekly review at home: Yes
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