Challenging Habitat Blog

Thank you, Home Office! My application was successful and I have Permanent Residence status. For now.

Of course, I have this right while the UK is member of the EU. Therefore, the Home Office news updates keep telling me how valued we Europeans are in our contributions to the British economy and how we Europeans don’t need to do anything at the moment to ascertain our rights to remain. Quite. We are encouraged to wait and carry on contributing to the economy until BREXIT bites (or some 2 years after that).

For now, I can live with the illusion that after BREXIT I have a choice. However, my Permanent Residence was granted under existing EU laws, and whether or not in 2019 or 2021 the shiny new permit card in my possession will be worth the paper it was printed on, is something else.


my BREXIT uncertainty

europeanflagI arrived in the UK in 1993 from continental Europe. I have learned here and invested a lot of my life in this country. I love living here, especially because I thought to be among people who are generally good at ‘live and let live’ while still caring – maybe people here are not perfect at this, but appear much better at it than where I come from. I’ve got a job I like and that allows me to give something back to society through education and research. I’ve got family and friends here.

I thought I could continue to shape my life without worrying about whether or not I have a right to be here. That right was a given and as I’ve always felt more European than anything else (except, maybe, eine Unterfränkin, but that’s a parochial joke and irrelevant here), I could not imagine this ever to change.

But it has. My world, as it relates to living in the UK, has become uncertain by the result of a referendum that was called for the wrong reasons, the campaigns for which were at best poor and at worst misleading on all sides, the outcome of which was not thought through by those who were responsible for thinking it out.

I’ll be applying for permanent residence to keep my options open. I know that it is irrational, but at the moment, I refuse to accept that my options should be curtailed by BREXIT after living here all this time.

Learning and tests

I’ve been learning all my life (sounds obvious) and teaching for much of my professional life and I am increasingly frustrated with education institution’s obsession with assessments. In most countries, the obligation to spend a minimum number of years at school ensures that basic education is ‘enjoyed’ by all. That may or may not be much fun while you’re there but overall it is a good thing and I do understand the need for some sort of ‘standardised’ set of qualifications. However, further and higher education should serve a different purpose. I have long had the feeling that what our society does with young people at school is more about points, stats and targets than about the cultivation of a passion for learning and deep thought, critical thinking the development of an understanding of the bigger picture and the long view. My learning utopia dispenses with all assessments because the mere joy of expanding one’s mind provides sufficient motivation to engage people with all the learning opportunities around us…

Will Self’s ‘Point of View’ on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 29th January 2017 expressed beautifully the consequences of ‘teaching to the test’ for the individual and society:

Metal mine waste tailings dam in Nova Scotia, Canada

Metal mine waste tailings dam in Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo C Braungardt 2010

Following on from writing about mining waste as a challenging habitat for plants (see ‘First Arrivals‘), I want to provide you with the means to make sense of the contamination present in the historic metal mining landscape in Southwest England (and by analogy, in similar settings elsewhere). Nearly 700 sites in England are considered contaminated with metals (DEFRA, 2009) and in the northern England alone, 12000 km2 of river catchment soils and sediments are directly affected by historic metal mining, with similar areas in the Cornwall and mid-Wales (EA, 2008). Here, I will try to answer the questions why (is it there ?), how much (of it?) and by placing numerical information into everyday context. .  Read More



Encrusting and branching lichens on granite on the Cornish coast. Photo C Braungardt 2009

If epiphytes were people, we would call them clever strategists. I guess this holds true for any organism that manages to occupy a hostile corner, but I am fascinated by life forms that grow on toxic substrates. In this context, epiphytes (or air plants) are the pioneers that prepare the terrain for the arrival of other organisms.
Read More


Mine waste and woodland in Cornwall, UK. Photo C Braungardt 2009

What makes plants thrive? The obvious answer is light, water and ‘good soil’. Light is not likely to be a limiting factor on most mine sites, as there is little growing that could provide too much shade. However, water can be an issue and that brings us to the concept of ‘good soil’.

So what is a ‘good soil’? It contains a mixture of humus (more than 5 %) and mineral particles (ca. 45 %) of different sizes, so that it has a good water retention capacity without making it water-logged, it is rich in major nutrients (nitrate, phosphate, potassium) and contains micro-nutrients within a concentration range that is somewhere between deficient and toxic, i.e. just right. Its acidity is modest and into its texture, plants can anchor their roots. Soil also contains air (ca. 25 %) and water.

A key component of fertile soil is humus that gives surface soils their dark colour and also can be found in well-tended compost heaps. Humus is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘The organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil micro-organisms’.

Humus provides minerals and nutrients that are readily available for plants and is important for retaining water and nutrients in soils.   Read More

Achilles – take 5

Boat design is brilliant. I’m not talking about beautiful, sleek and fast hulls, efficient rigging, righting properties…as great as this might be when you’re up for a sail. I’m thinking about the interior. Galley, heads, cockpit, navigation station – all designed for perfect functionality and everything within easy reach.

I never would have thought that it could bother me having to get onto my crutches just to negotiate the one step across the narrow aisle between the kitchen sink and the cutlery drawer. But it is a bit of a nuisance having to give up the comfort of leaning with one hip against the cupboard, crutches safely positioned, having two hands free for doing daily tasks in an almost ‘normal’ manner. Serves me right for having forgotten to take a teaspoon across with the teabag in the first place. Of course, I could fish the latter of the brew with my fingertips.

On our boat with its well-designed galley, such issues would not arise and I wished I could get up on deck and into the cabin to live there now.

Achilles – take 4

A well known restaurant in Plymouth’s Barbican housed in a building associated with an even better known alcoholic drink that bears the city’s name and goes well with tonic water and lime offers disabled patrons the services of a special lift. It’s one of those without a cabin (i.e. when leaning against the wall, clothes or skin get dragged and potentially trapped between the moving and static elements of the contraption) and once settled within, the occupier has to push the ‘up’ or ‘down’ button for the whole duration of the journey. All of that is fine considering the alternative (for me: bum-shuffle up a flight of stairs in public – see Achilles – take 2).

However, the lack of consideration about how we get in and out of the lift is a little annoying. Using two crutches means that I haven’t got a free hand unless I balance on one crutch and one leg while swinging open the heavy door. On the way into the lift, it’s not so bad: a case of positioning oneself advantageously and applying technique (see Achilles – take 3) with force. On the way out, the door has too much of a ferocious closing mechanism for me to swing it open and prevent it from hitting my face on its return journey by ramming my crutch into the floor in good time and position. Instead, I applied my shoulder to overcome the door’s initial inertia, only to stumble, once it gave way more easily, with a clutter behind the chair of a startled diner. Not very dignified at all. More importantly: it could have hurt or worse had I not managed to stay on all three (two crutches and one leg).

I can’t imagine how much more difficult this is in a wheelchair (must ask someone with experience soon).

The situation is no better at my workplace, with the exception of Plymouth University library: Here we have a lift for the disabled that opens the door automatically when arriving at the destination. Just like a ‘normal’ lift. Bravo for design! Safe! So easy to make me feel considered and smile!

P.S. When the term ‘lift for the disabled’ is shortened to ‘disabled lift’ I used to consider it lazy language. Come to think of it, it may be an apt and mildly ironic expression coined by those in the know.


I am European and in the UK.

Achilles – take 3

The ‘door-kick and stop’.

When occasionally carrying something bulky in the past, I thought it annoying that those posh stainless steel buttons with a wheelchair printed on it only feature on the ‘outside’ doors of Portland Square Building at Plymouth University, but that’s it. Inside, not a single door is ‘accessible’ and if you enter the building through the wrong door, you have to negotiate one of these veeery slooow open glass cage lifts to get up one level, to the ‘proper’ lifts.

Now I’m carrying myself on crutches through the building to get to my office on 5th floor, with four 4 heavy, self-closing doors in the way. Opening one of these requires just enough kick with the rubber stopper on the bottom of one crutch to swing it a little more than required, then quickly preventing the door from falling close with said rubber stopper, while getting ready to easy my way through with the help of the second crutch.

Never mind the door slamming after me, it should have been fitted with an opener…

Achilles – take 2

DSC_1095Stairs: British medics strongly discourage the use of crutches on stairs and if you ever tried you know what can go wrong…although I’ve been shown how to do it safely in Hong Kong.

Alas, here, the method of choice is the ‘bum-shuffle’. Not very dignified!  Apart from that, it requires somebody to keep stairs reasonably clean, a daily challenge when you’ve got a large dog who is shedding his winter coat.

Oh yes, dog: Scapa is used to long walks on weekends with me and will have to wait for a while before I can do that again!




Temporary plaster

I never thought much about Iliad and Achilles, but subconsciously thought my tendons as ‘immortal’ as Thetis tried to make Achilles by dipping him into the Styx. Well, on Friday, I learned they are not when I tore one of mine while – what else? – exercising. ‘Rubbish!!!’ was the general consensus among the onlookers, not least because the accident deprived 19 others of the last 10 minutes of communal sweating.

The reason I write about this here are the challenges I now encounter as a person with (temporary) impaired mobility. First, how would I get up from the floor of the gym onto which I collapsed and into the changing room to shower and change? Never mind that, after a quick assessment and application of an ice pack, the first aiders carried me into a taxi to the minor injury unit, where I was offered a wheelchair. An hour or so later, I re-emerged fitted with a non-load bearing plaster and two crutches. Next, my husband David got a lift from our friend Ann to where I parked my car and collected me.

Relying on people to transport me and fetch and carry everything that can’t be carried in my little rucksack will be a part of my life for the coming weeks – and theirs. We’ll see how well the built environment is suited to let me carry on with daily life.

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