Evolving a naturalist – happy birthday to me!

Jeff in the tee-pee

Somehow, today is my 50th birthday.  So I thought I’d mark it with a short post about my personal evolution as a naturalist and, ultimately, professional scientist.

One of the great things about the internet and social media such as Facebook is that you can make exciting discoveries on a weekly basis.  Recently I found out something that means a lot to me on a very personal level: I discovered that a family* who lived in the same street when I was growing up in Sunderland in the 60s and 70s have digitised some old home movies and made them available on YouTube.  In our digital age in which every phone and camera can capture and share events as they happen, it’s sometimes easy to forget that owning a movie camera in the 60s was quite a rarity and the majority of kids living at that time were never filmed.   

These movies are exciting not just because one of them shows me aged about 5 years (in the blue shirt) playing with friends (I’m there from 3’53”) but because it documents, in colour and moving pictures, one of the reasons why I became a professional naturalist with a deep fascination for biodiversity. 

The grassland in which we are erecting a tee-pee is not some country meadow, the kind of wild rural landscape cited by so many other naturalists as inspiring their childhood fascination with natural history.  These grasslands had arisen spontaneously on cleared demolition sites, following the removal of Victorian terraced housing and tenement blocks, some of which were slums and others that had suffered bomb damage in the Second World War (now that does make me sound old!)

Up until the 1950s this area had been very built up, with the houses, shops and pubs serving the local families who were employed mainly in the shipyards and coal mines to the north of the town.  You can get a sense of how urban it was from this 1898 map of Southwick; the places I refer to are just south-west of The Green to the left of the map. 

Following demolition the sites were left to their own ends, and were colonised by plants, insects, birds and mammals from patches of habitat closer to the river that had either been cleared of buildings earlier in the century, or which had never been built upon at all.  There are some nice areas of magnesian limestone grassland nearby along the higher banks of the River Wear valley, and typical calcicole plants such as Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) could be found on these post-demolition grasslands.  In fact, in the absence of horse chestnut trees, we used to play a version of conkers using the unripe seed heads of Greater Knapweed.  Was that an echo of earlier children’s games in Britain, prior to the introduction of horse chestnuts in the 17th century?  Apparently similar games were played with snail shells and hazelnuts.  

If you watch the opening minute of this piece of footage from the same series, and ignore the girls posing and playing in the foreground, the background reveals a rich flora of plants, with butterflies hopping between flowers.  The first bird species that I can remember identifying, and being fascinated by its bright colours, was Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) feeding on the seeds of tall thistles in the very area where this was filmed.   The first butterfly that I could put a name to was the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), also feeding on thistles, but this time on the nectar-rich flower heads, as a pollinator.  We’d collect its caterpillars from the nearby nettles and raise them in jars.

So you don’t have to have had a rural upbringing to appreciate and benefit from nature, and to later influence your profession and passions, any piece of land can inspire interest in kids, regardless of its origin, if nature is left to colonise. Unmanaged, semi-wild green space within towns and cities has huge value, both for wildlife and for the culture of childhood.  They need to be protected just as much as rural nature reserves, including the generally disparaged but actually biodiverse “brownfield” sites, as Sarah Arnold has discussed in a recent blog post.

Some of the riverside grasslands still remain and I hope that they are fascinating new generations of kids with their colour and diversity and flouncing butterflies. But the post-industrial grasslands on which I played and looked for bugs and flowers are all gone; they were cleared and built upon in a flurry of housing and retail development in the 1980s.  Perhaps in the future they may return if those buildings are themselves demolished and the land allowed to lie undisturbed for a while.  That is what nature does: it ebbs and flows across our landscapes in response to human, and natural, interventions, endlessly changing and endlessly fascinating to the curious minds of children and scientists, no matter how old they are.


*My sincere thanks to the Scrafton family who took the original footage, made it available on YouTube, and gave me permission to use it in this post.

23 thoughts on “Evolving a naturalist – happy birthday to me!

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    Happy 50th, Jeff! Great post. Have to admit, though – I’ll be 50 next year and I haven’t yet figured out how I got into this (wonderful) profession. I usually talk about “academic Brownian motion”, but that won’t make as good a blog post!

  2. navasolanature

    Happy Birthday and a really interesting account. I agree growing up in London where there were lots of green spaces some official some not! And at present every bloody scrap of land there is having flats built on it and not usually for the like of you and me!

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thank you! Yes, much of the informal urban green space is going, which is a pity on many levels, not least the fact that it can be much more biodiverse than green belt areas.

  3. Clem

    Happy 50th!! A milestone, to be sure. And I have to echo some of the other sentiments expressed above – the opportunities for youth in natural areas are remarkable. Part of me wonders if there is way too much technology around today to lure our youth from playing in the great outdoors. Making toys with resources at hand likely inspires a level of creativity that cell phones, tablets, video games etc can’t match.

  4. Renate Wesselingh

    I grew up in the Netherlands, for the most part in cities with only parks as natural areas. When I was 8, we moved to a city where our neighbourhood had an big fallow area with just some natural grassy vegetation, it is possible that it was a demolition area as well. It was called Galgenveld (gallows field), which is also the name now used for the whole neighbourhood. This gave it a nice spooky atmosphere, we would spend quite some time riding our bikes there, crisscrossing the paths and avoiding the dog turds. They built houses on it not long after. My private wild place then became the walled garden behind a former 19th-century monastery, which was owned by the (Catholic) university and where my dad worked. He and his colleagues had vegetable plots in a corner of the garden, there were apple trees and long grass on lawns that were no longer manicured. It had a small wood at the back (it seemed enormous at the time, but it probably was much less than a hectare), with a Lourdes-grotto. Great place to roam around, and since it was completely walled in, I really had it for myself when I took the key to go there during the weekends. I also loved to help my dad in the vegetable garden, I was convinced that the wood pigeon above our heads was calling “aard-ap-pe-len” (potatoes) when we were harvesting said tubers… That paradise is gone now too, the building is still there, but a road is now running over the former vegetable gardens, breaching the stone walls, and new buildings have appeared on the lawns and have replaced the woody area. I don’t think there is much wild space left in Dutch cities anymore, and even the countryside looks very much cleaned up, not many neglected corners in such a densely populated country.
    Belgium is a bit better: it may be just as densely populated in some corners, but at least the Belgians have more talent for neglect than the Dutch…

  5. zekethegardener

    The Wild is a profound component of all life on our planet- including the wild in us all. It is good to be reminded of the adventure of childhood and re-kindle the sense of wonder and freedom we had. I agree completely with your comment about wild spaces within urban areas. Speaking of the wild, it is not easy to focus on the grasses behind the animated girls in the film. Jeff, thank you for sharing a look into your childhood, a link to my own as well!

  6. Pingback: The Seven Ages of an Entomologist – Happy 60th Birthday to Me | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

  7. Pingback: Anticipation and the art of aging youthfully | waterwiseblog

  8. Pingback: How does a scientist’s h-index change over time? | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  9. Pingback: By lifiting the restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides Defra throws a (bee) brick at its own National Pollinator Strategy | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  10. Pingback: Sex and drugs and the source of the Nile: Sir Richard Francis Burton | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  11. Pingback: Compilation of stories on paths to ecology | Dynamic Ecology

  12. Pingback: Poet as Scientist as Poet – from Dark Mountain 10 | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

Leave a Reply to ScientistSeesSquirrel Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s