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Ellen McCallie's Carriacou diary: Time and transmitters

Updated Monday, 28th January 2008

Find out how the Rough Science team went about making a kite from natural products.

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Day 1

Heck, I can make a kite – at least it will look like a kite – but I don’t think I’ve ever flown one. This may be a great disadvantage – I won’t have much insight into what modification to make if it sort of flies. Also, this kite is not going to be made of homemade paper. I think I’d have a mutiny if I even suggested it – too much work!

So up the coconut tree I went. I originally saw people climbing trees while doing botanical research in the tropics. Some of the guys who lived along tributaries to the Amazon would climb various palm trees to get the fruit. They’d wander into the forest, find a vine, wrap it up, and then scoot up a palm tree. Yes, some palms, like coconut palm trees, you can "walk" up, but others are too smooth. I wanted the fruit of acai and other smooth-trunked palms, so I learned the vine method of climbing by watching.

I forgot to sharpen my machete before Kate and I hit the forest, so it was pretty pitiful when it came time to cutting vines. I can imagine every botanist, farmer and forest lover just laughing and shaking their heads watching me hack at vines with my dull machete. At least Kate’s was better. She also learned fast.

When it came time to filming the collection of the coconut fiber, I headed up the tree. It isn’t difficult, but it does take quite a bit of muscle. I’m always thankful that my parents got me involved with cross country running starting when I was eleven. Not only did it keep me out of trouble all the way through high school, it has also provided me with a fitness foundation. I am not fast, but I am strong and reliable. My lungs and legs have stamina. My arms on the other hand…

I was doing the best I could holding on, hacking with my machete to cut the fiber sheaths that surrounded the coconut flower. In rock climbing we are always told to have three points on the rock, but it just wasn’t working. I needed two hands - one to hold the fiber sheath and the other to hack at it. It was safe as long as I was squeezing the palm as hard as I could with my feet and thighs. The blood kept draining from my hands and arms, though. This hurt. Sure, for some this would have been a piece of cake. For me, it was hard. I’d actually never done it before. I’d watched guys climb many times. I’d never seen a woman do it, nor had I done more than one or two "steps" up a palm.

Here I was climbing and hacking with this film crew watching. When I couldn’t stand it any longer and my legs were shaking I started to head down. Drew called up that he was out of film, could I wait a minute for him to change rolls or, if I had to come down, could I then go back up for a minute? That is when I really got tickled. Hey, I liked to think I was making it look easy. Actually, my legs were wobbling and throbbing. There was no way I’d make it up the tree again today – or even tomorrow. Could I hold on?

Once safely on the ground again, I quickly threw together a kite using sticks as the frame (I’ll collect bamboo tomorrow), coconut fiber as the sail and home-made thread/rope from the hulls of coconuts and agave plants. Once I proved I could make a light, but dependable, line, Kate generously gave me some. (Otherwise I would have had to put her to work making forty to sixty feet of it.)

My first attempt at a kite did not fly. I took it to Kathy and Jonathan for insight. Making a botanical kite was my challenge – and appropriately so. I just wish it were someone else’s job to make it fly.

Day 2

The only person involved in the show that flew kites was Paul, one of the soundmen. Though I tried and tried, I never got the kite up for more than three seconds. Paul got it up for ten to fifteen seconds, but he could never pass the string along to me. He said that the wind was really gusty.

So what makes a kite fly? Heck, I don’t even know how to think about this. The frame needs to be sturdy but flexible. The sail needs to be strong and smooth. How important is smooth?

There was a lot of controversy about the tail – one tail or many? A long tail or a heavy tail? Is the tail for balance or not? How do I figure this stuff out? I don’t think about making kites very often at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Okay, lift happens when air on one side of the sail (or wing) is moving faster than the other side. The faster side has less pressure, so the sail gets pushed up – or is it the other way around? I can tell you how levers work. I can explain the gears on a bicycle. Why didn’t I spend more time in front of the airplane exhibits in museums? It sure would have helped me now!

In any case, bamboo is an amazing plant. It grows in many parts of the world. It is actually a big grass. Its leaves can be as sharp and painful as a serrated bread knife. Because the fibers of bamboo are relatively long and the stems are hollow, bamboo is strong, flexible, and light. I’ve seen it used as scaffolding all over Asia, even to build skyscrapers. Yet the young shoots of bamboo are edible, both to pandas and humans, though I don’t know if we eat the same bamboo species.

Also, coconut palms are considered "life trees" because they meet so many of our needs as humans. The coconuts provide nutritious liquid when "young" (immature fruit). The mature nut has calorie-rich flesh, full of life sustaining fats. The fruits float. The coconut hulls are made into ladles and other utensils. The fronds are great for shade, making baskets and probably much more. The husk fiber can be twisted into a strong rope. It is almost as if that any need one has, coconut can help meet it.

I also poked a hole in acacia thorns to make needles to sew the sail of the kite.

Day 3

I’m not sure how I feel. Was this a success – waving a kite on a long stick? Are gusty tropical winds dependable? Should geeky kids, like I was, be forced to gain practical life experience even if they don’t want to, so they know more about all sorts of things? All I can think of is this great photo of my grandfather lying on the ground, his eyes shut and flying a kite by holding the string in his teeth.

My brain has just never worked very well when dealing with the physics of motion. Some people pick it up quickly. I had to force myself through it, no pun intended. When I get home I think I’ll get some flying toys and just play with them. The kids in the neighborhood will join me. Maybe they can teach me what makes things fly and why.





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