Dr R. "Ven" Venkatasamy

 

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I have always found it easy to write about many things but not about myself.

Early days in Mauritius

I must admit I was lucky to grow up within the natural surroundings of a colonial house, that a huge back garden, almost a forest of fruit trees and plants, with the associated fauna and flora. During those days when the distractions of TV, Internet, Mobiles and Tablets did not exist, there was plenty of time to observe, study and try to understand the functions of the natural world, a knowledge that was to serve a purpose in later life.

Growing up

Growing up also means achieving some degree of independence and growing up on a small island with numerous mountains, forests, and the clear waters of ocean lagoons increases the scope of new adventures, new discoveries, new experiences, and further accumulation of both information and knowledge. Mountain climbing, trekking through forests and along watercourses, camping, fishing and diving became the usual weekend and college holidays occupations, and further opportunities to observe and learn.

First Job

As any young man of my age of my time, there was that eagerness to start working, earning and be independent. An opportunity arose for trainee Foresters in the Forestry Service. I managed to be selected. Two years of training in Mauritius, then off to the Dean Forester Training School, in the heart of the Forest of Dean in the UK. The course included stages in the New Forest, the mountains of North Wales, and Pitlochry, the heart of the Scottish Highlands, Haggis and the Scottish Highland Games being part of the experience.

Back to Mauritius in 1968, and after 3 years on a re-afforestation project was attached to the newly created Wild Life Services at which time the project to save the endemic Mauritian Kestrel and Pink Pigeon was underway. I was in charge of putting up the necessary infrastructure for the bird sanctuary at Black River, worked with Carl Jones, now the renowned professor Carl Jones. He lent me a pair of binoculars which has travelled the world and still with me. I also had the opportunity of meeting and discussing a few issues with the late Gerald Durrell, of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo, another world-renowned conservation personality. By 1975 the island became too small for my plans, so back to the UK.

1976-1990

The plan was going back to graduate studies, and it had to be through the hard way of working and studying the same time, and also getting married. The first lap was 3 years at High Wycombe for a degree in Wood Science, and then joined the Master’s course in Biodeterioration at Portsmouth University; my first opportunity to study deterioration of ancient archaeological wood was through my Master’s research thesis on microbiological decay of timbers from the wreck of the Mary Rose ship. The Mary Rose, a Tudor warship of the fleet of King Henry VIII of England, sank off Portsmouth harbour in 1545; efforts were being underway by archaeologists of the Mary Rose Trust to raise it, and it is now, or rather what was left of it after years partly buried in silt and mud, in its own Museum at Portsmouth. I managed to secure a grant to continue the work I started with the Mary Rose Trust, so the next 3 years were spent investigating the degree of microbial deterioration of archaeological wood from the wreck of the Mary Rose and suggesting methods of chemical preservation. What is interesting is that both Portsmouth University and Imperial College, London, contributed to introducing the hard sciences into archaeology, triggering a series of similar investigations into decay of ancient archaeological wood in other parts of the world.

Encouraged by the late mycologist, Dr Steve Moss, and Professor E.B. Gareth Jones, Head of Research at Portsmouth, I stayed on for a doctorate degree in environmental microbiology. It was my time at Portsmouth that acquainted me with the IRG and allowed meeting and discussing wood decay and wood preservation with such eminent scientists as the late Professor John Levy, Harry Greaves, Tony Bravery, John Butcher, Dave Dickinson, and several others, and also working together with a number of young wood scientists of my time. In 1989 there was a request from a new State university in Kenya for a wood scientist to invigorate a wood science department in the faculty of forestry. Encouraged by my peers and seniors too, I left for Kenya in 1990.

1990-2009 Kenya

Building up a proper Department of Wood Science proved to be a long-winding effort, but managed to introduce several new courses, including wood anatomy, wood decay and wood preservation in the undergraduate and later graduate programmes. It was also an opportunity to dissect the wood preservation industry in Kenya, look at the effectiveness of their technologies of treatment, the problems of premature decay, the piling of out-of-service toxic wood in the environment around the country, and the serious problems associated with poor fixation and leaching of CCA from treated wood, with the ensuing environmental problems. I also managed to set up long-term termite and wood decay testing sites, even in the face of the eternal problems of lack of corporation and finances. There was hardly any money for publishing or attending conferences, but I managed to push several publications out as a corresponding member of the IRG. The investigations in Kenya probably also contributed to the removal of CCA from the market.

It was also a time to expand my portfolio of contacts around the world, especially in the USA. Regular incursions into S. Africa allowed meeting and interacting with other scientists, including Professor Tony Pizzi, then at the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Albin Baeker at the then University of Durban Westville (now the University of Kwazulu Natal), Professor Vermaas of Stellenbosch University, scientists from the CSIR and SAWPA, and Foresters from the Forest Owners Association.

With the feeling of having overstayed in Kenya, a country charged with opportunities and challenges for research in many fields, as well as possessing much natural beauty not found elsewhere, I decided for a change of environment and took the short route to Mauritius, my country of birth.

Out of Africa: 2009-Now

After a period of rest, re-orientation and re-adaptation, I started my own Consultancy in Environmental Management, lectured at the local Universities for a few years, until I finally decided to hang up the gloves. My last contribution to the IRG from Mauritius, at the request of Mr Jermer, was ‘Major and Minor Timbers of Kenya and their Commercial Uses’ (2016). I am not sure if there will be any other, but possibilities still exist.

Writing, publishing, editing and reviewing other people’s work keep me busy these days, but all these I do in my own time.

 

This bio was written for the February 2022 IRG newsletter.