Tag Archives: Education

Scientist as Poet as Scientist – from Dark Mountain 10

Dark Mountain on Tenerife 1

What follows is the text from an article that has just been published in Dark Mountain issue 10. Click on that link and you can read more extracts from this volume of poetry, prose, and illustration, and even purchase a copy.  Dark Mountain 10 focuses on “poetics”, hence the title and topic of my contribution.

The Dark Mountain project is a fascinating, vibrant, loose network of writers, thinkers, musicians and artists, whose work and ideas I’ve discussed previously (see:  Up a mountain darkly and We are so very ‘umble).  It’s a great achievement that they (we) have made it to ten issues; here’s to the next 10.


Poet as Scientist as Poet

For as long as I can recall I have been a scientist. Early memories as a child include turning over rocks and probing under bushes in search of elusive insects, dissecting knowledge from road kill, and splitting it from fossil-rich shale. But also, for as many years as I can remember, I have created poetry. Sometimes this has been permanent written text, other times only thoughts and fragments, committed to temporary memory and ultimately lost like the bugs I studied in jars and released back into the wild. Over time the science has become public-facing as hobbies were turned into a career. The poetry remained turned inward, written for myself, only occasionally on show to lovers or to audiences at local spoken-word events.

Perhaps the idea of scientist as poet is too contradictory to bear serious scrutiny, but both of these aspects of my life relate to a deep, enquiring curiosity that has always been present. Both reflect a need to understand something of this complex, confusing world we inhabit, and the place of people and their relationships with one another, and with the environment in a wider, encompassing nature.

In the first volume of Dark Mountain I stepped out as a scientist-poet and contributed an essay-with-poetry entitled ‘W(h)ither Science?’, which was a very personal take on the role of scientists, and the knowledge they generate, in the early 21st century. This piece was framed within the context of Uncivilised ideas of ‘what happens when it all goes wrong?’ I prefer to think of it as ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ because, as I originally put it, ‘knowledge is not predictable’. In other words, we don’t know what will happen in the future, so we can only prepare for a range of outcomes. If we take the best of the sciences and of the arts, and of the education they generate, perhaps we can survive as a species and as a set of communities.

Was that really only six years ago? So much has happened in the intervening period; the science has turned ever more outward, with more writing for scientific journals, magazines, my blog, and more presentations of the research undertaken by my group to other scientists, to policy makers and NGOs, and to the public. The poetry, meanwhile, has remained private, which led me to consider whether it was time to give up a little more. The two short poems in this essay were both written more than ten years ago, though they have been revised and polished periodically. Even as I began to construct this piece I was revising words and reconsidering sentence structure, much as I might revise the analysis of a data set or reconsider its interpretation when writing a scientific paper. One of the things I love about producing poetry is that its form is malleable, it’s never complete, I can change it when I wish. This malleability is also a feature of science: we revise our ideas when confronted with new evidence, rejecting previously supported hypotheses in favour of more accurate notions of the universe.


Chains of Copper, Locks of Lead

Mention a river:
I may have heard of it,
Or talked to a woman who has gazed at its bed.
Cage its waters, bind its banks,
With chains of copper, and locks of lead.

Ultimately bending to time, eroding
The surge and the volume sustaining, removing.

Weighed down, I lay down,
And the river unconscious
Passed over my body and on to the sea.
While my lover cast stones from the bank to the current.
The banks of my body, the river of me.


Due to their inherent chemical properties, both lead and copper are relatively ductile, weak metals: they cannot withstand the force of a river indefinitely. In the same way, no matter how much we believe we can tame rivers or seas or any other component of the natural world, ultimately the environment will prevail. It just takes time. We might canalise a river to prevent flooding or dam it to provide hydro-electricity, but not realise that in its untamed state the river is more valuable, as it provides food, allows travel, brings fertility to flood plains. What, then, does it mean to ‘know’ something about a river? Whose knowledge is more valuable, which expert do we trust? The internet is awash with information, but knowledge, first and second-hand, can both enlighten us and sometimes prevent us from really understanding.


Ordinary by Choice

She chose the route and chose her topics,
Modular waypoints across years of work.
Decisions based on the balance of a gyroscopic
Pursuit of life, work, and an honours degree.
Finally, she elected to be
Ordinary by choice.


A student who chooses not to complete a final year dissertation
module – and so graduate with Honours – but rather exit university with an Ordinary degree, is described as ‘Ordinary by choice’. The phrase strikes me as both poetic and prophetic. Could anyone choose to be ‘ordinary’, and even if they could, is such a thing desirable? Is the course of a simple, ordinary life preferable to one that is complex and extra-ordinary? Does anyone truly believe that their experience of our rich, intricate world, in which decisions are made about priorities and ‘balance of life’, is ordinary, no matter how they make a living or what they do to fill their days?

Education in its widest sense, both formal and informal, taught and autodidactic, is a constant and destinationless journey that takes us from ignorant to less-than-ignorant. It is no coincidence that we use the same word (‘course’) in education, and to describe a river, and a life. A river’s function, as far as people are concerned, depends on choices that we make as to its course and fate. But even without human intervention that course naturally shifts over time and its destination is not necessarily the sea: much depends on geological events and the resulting topography of the land, at time scales uncaptured by the course of an individual’s experience.

The scientific research that I undertake is an attempt to capture truths about the ecological functioning of our planet and how it underpins human societies, no matter how technological or industrialised. It takes collected, often hard-won, data, internally scrutinises it for meaning, and externalises the findings into tables, graphs and written texts, that may influence other scientists or emerge in government reports or policy documents. My poetry takes ideas, emotions, feelings, and projects that mix of internal and external worlds into forms that sometimes, but not always, make sense to me. Empirical truths and emotional truths are not the same thing, and in fact may be contradictory and counter-factual. But empirical rationalism and emotional construction can coexist, and often do within the minds and personalities of scientists. Most do not produce poetry, but every scientist I know is emotionally invested in their subject and openly describes their science in terms of delight, rage, obsession, elation and disappointment, every bit as intense as any poet.


The full reference for this is:

Ollerton, J. (2016) Scientist as Poet as Scientist  Dark Mountain 10: 185-189

Student field trip to Summer Leys Nature Reserve – birds, bins and biting winds!

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Field trips are a vital component of any university degree course that includes within it elements of ecology, organismal biology, geography or environmental science.  Learning about the natural environment via lectures, books and seminars is one thing: experiencing it first hand is quite another, and adds significantly to a deeper understanding of complex environmental issues such as nature reserve management.  For that reason at the University of Northampton we’ve always strove to maintain as much field experience as possible within our degree programmes, including long field courses to the South-West USA and Tenerife (as I’ve previously documented), day trips to places such as Wicken Fen, and shorter sessions in and around our campus.

An annual winter visit to Summer Leys Nature Reserve has been a feature of our first year undergraduate teaching for many years, and focuses on the bird life to be found in this flooded and restored gravel pit.  Of particular interest at this time of year are the over-wintering waders and wild fowl, for which the reserve has been designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protected Area status.  The latter is a European-level designation which reflects the international importance of the Nene Valley for bird life.

This year’s trip took place on Thursday, which was initially bright but cold.  The field trip is not compulsory so many students decided not to turn up.  Those that attended had a great time walking the circuit around the reserve, visiting the bird hides, and learning the intricacies of both duck identification and how a site such as this is managed.

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As we walked and recorded I kept a running total of the birds that we identified. Highlights included three Great White Egrets standing together on one of the islands, the greatest number I’ve seen at one time in the county, and an indication of much more common these spectacular birds have become in the last decade, as county bird recorder Mike Alibone has discussed on his blog.  They have bred in Somerset since 2012 and hopefully will do so in the Nene Valley in the not too distant future    You can just make out the birds in the centre of this image:

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Another highlight was the large number of Bullfinches that we saw foraging along the paths and in the low trees, at least 20, all of which were females.  Some were very confiding and we could approach them to within a couple of metres, such as this one:

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Ducks were plentiful, with good numbers of Wigeon, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Mallard, fewer Shoveler, a couple of Goldeneye, and a single Pochard.  There were also large flocks of Lapwing and a couple of unidentified waders, possibly Redshank.

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The final total of birds was a respectable 39 species and our half-day trip ended as cold winds brought in heavy cloud, rain and then finally a sudden fall of snow. By which time we were back in the warmth of the campus, enjoying a cup of tea and catching up with emails.


Ecosystem services online lecture by Robert Costanza


A few weeks ago I posted about ecosystem services and the differing opinions of writers such as George Monbiot and academics like Robert Costanza, together with a link to Monbiot’s lecture on the topic.  A new online lecture by Costanza has just been released, based on a webinar he presented last week.  It’s well worth watching, highly recommended as a state of the art over view of the concepts and progress in this area.

George Monbiot will not like it.


7 minutes is a long time in science, 7 goals is a big win in football (BES Macroecology meeting day 2)

Grey heron in Nottingham

Day 1 of the British Ecological Society Macroecology Special Interest Group ended with a drinks reception, kindly bankrolled by the International Biogeography Society, and a stark choice: dinner in a pub with good food and no television on which to watch the Brazil v Germany World Cup semi-final; or dinner in a pub with crappy food but a television.

The split amongst meeting delegates was about 50-50.  As I get older I’m being drawn to things in which I previously had only a passing interest, amongst them bird watching and football.  So I opted for the latter, and was one of only two Brazil supporters in the whole pub, the other being our guest speaker Cathy Graham, largely because we both have more Brazilian than German friends and colleagues. We were rewarded with one of the most excruciatingly clinical dissections of a major international football team that I’ve ever witnessed.  And the food was indeed crappy, but the lager was cold and plentiful.

The next morning, impelled by an uncomfortable mattress on a steel-framed bed in one of the student halls of residence, I woke early enough to do a little bird watching around the University of Nottingham’s Park Campus, which is not unlike the University of Northampton’s Park Campus, except much larger.  There was a modest diversity of birds flying and calling, the highlight being a large grey heron patrolling the edge of a circular pond.  As there were no fish in the pond it seemed to be mainly eating the slugs crawling on the adjacent lawn.  Not a behaviour I’ve ever seen before, though this year’s BBC Springwatch showed footage of parent tawny owls bringing back large slugs for their chick, so perhaps it’s more common than we realise.

Following a mediocre breakfast and disgusting coffee, it was time for the first lecture of the day, the second keynote by Cathy Graham.  Once again she focussed on her hummingbird research and presented some fascinating unpublished data on the structure of bird assemblages along an altitudinal gradient in Ecuador.  Cathy’s team has been using cheap digital cameras which take one frame a second to amass data on infrequently visited rainforest flowers, an approach that trades off time and space: it’s possible to get a long set of data, but for only a limited number of plant species and individuals.

After coffee there were papers by Katie Leach on her PhD work on competition between co-occurring species of Lagomorpha (rabbits, hares, pikas, etc.) and from Richard Field on altitudinal effects on the endemism of plants which chimed with my experiences in Tenerife.  Both of these neatly demonstrated one of the strengths of macroecology: the 21st Century tools it can marshal to use secondary data for understanding ecological patterns and processes at very large spatial scales.

But secondary data can also be a weakness of the field if the quality is poor and it is limited in scope.  This was the subject later in the day of a polemical lecture by Shai Meiri entitled “Laziness in macroecology: a crime and no punishment” that railed against researchers who sometimes fail to augment ready-made data sets with even the most rudimentary of additional data.  My favourite of Shai’s examples was a study which had used a mammalian ecology data set in which the diet of anteaters was coded as “unknown”!  The tee-shirt Shai wore during his often very funny rant read: “If you are not outraged, you were not paying attention” and there was plenty for the audience to feel outraged about, not least his suggestion that we “ban taxonomy” and (even more controversially) get away from our computer screens and into the libraries to source information to fill in the gaps in data sets.

I’d go further and say that some field work would not go amiss as well!  In comparison with using ever more sophisticated analyses, developing better software, and building ever more complex models, collecting field data seems to be low on the list of priorities for many macroecologists, particularly some of the PhD students. Not all of them by any means, and hopefully Cathy Graham’s talks will have inspired them to get into the field, but it strikes me as a trend.  That’s worrying on many levels, and good data are hard won, but then I’m an old-fashioned, muddy boots kind of ecologist who realises that our knowledge of biodiversity is built up from a very small set of data in comparison to what we don’t know: we’ve scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg as a colleague used to say.

In the afternoon there was an unscheduled talk by Olivia Norfolk on the biodiversity of plants and pollinators of Bedouin gardens in the mountains of Sinai, which included a lot of field data.  This was followed by a second set of seven minute “lightning talks”.  I was third on a diverse bill, sandwiched within research on amphibians, Tyrannosaurus rex, North American lizards and microbial communities.  Seven minutes passes quickly and I overran slightly, but hopefully managed to convey the gist of our work on the relative frequency of wind versus animal pollination across the globe.  No one threw missiles at least and there were a couple of good questions that probed the scope and limitations of the current data, but were nowhere near as challenging as the questions in Copenhagen (though I’d had much more time for that lecture).

Following a hasty set of goodbyes I headed to Nottingham station to catch the 1810 back home, once again via the desolation of Birmingham New Street.  Reflecting on the meeting on the way to Northampton I was struck by the fact that of the forty-odd attending, I was the oldest delegate by some margin, which was even more sobering than Brazil’s loss to Germany.  I consoled myself with a bit of “train spotting” (identifying as many bird species as possible through the windows of the train), and ended up with a respectable 21 species* during the two hours or so of travel.

Thanks to the organising committee of the BES Macroecology SIG, and especially to Adam Algar and his team in Nottingham, for a great meeting.  I look forward to next year’s in Copenhagen.


*Blackbird, buzzard, swift, house martin, tufted duck, mute swan, mallard, jay, goldfinch, collared dove, wood pigeon, feral pigeon, starling, crow, magpie, grey heron, Canada goose, common tern, back-headed gull, common gull, pheasant, (22 if you count chickens in a run).


All pollinators are equal, but some pollinators are more equal than others

The infamous line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm asserting that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” nicely captures an ecological view of pollinators and their relationships with plants.  “Pollinators” by definition move pollen between flowers, but not all pollinators are equally good at transferring pollen of any particular plant: some are more effective than others. I’ll illustrate this with examples from the urban garden that Karin and I are developing, which I’ve discussed before.

As you can see from that link, the garden is modest in size, but nonetheless this year it contains a significant biodiversity of edible plants that require pollinators for some or all of the fruit and seed set, including: strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radishes.

Radishes?!”  I hear you ask.  “But they are grown for their edible swollen roots which don’t require pollination!”  True, usually.  But we let our radishes flower because we mainly grow them for their seed pods which, picked young, are delicious in salads and stir fries, like mustardy mange tout.  They look like this:

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The radish flowers are pollinated by a diversity of insects including butterflies, bees, and small flies:

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These insects will vary in their effectiveness as pollinators of radish, depending on the frequency of visits, how often they move between flowers, and the amount of pollen on their bodies.  This last factor is largely a function of size and hairiness (bigger, hairier insects carry more pollen as a rule), though cleanliness also plays a part: insects often groom the pollen from their bodies and, in the case of bees, may pack it into their pollen baskets where it’s not available for pollination.

The size and behaviour aspect is best illustrated by some recent photos that I took of visitors to the flowers of passion fruit (Passiflora caerulea var.).  We have a large, sprawling plant growing up a fence which is currently being visited by honey bees, hoverflies, solitary bees and bumblebees.  In comparison to the size of the flower and the position of the anthers (male, pollen producing parts) and stigmas (female, pollen receiving parts), the hoverflies, honey bees and solitary bees are relatively small.  These two images are of honey bees (Apis mellifera):



Here’s an unidentified solitary bee:


These bees were occasionally touching the anthers, mainly with their wings, so some pollen will be moved around.  But from what I observed it’s likely to be a relatively small amount in comparison to bumblebees, which are usually much larger and hairier, and don’t groom themselves as often as honey bees.  Here’s a Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):


They were actively collecting pollen as well as nectar.  Much of this pollen is packed into the pollen baskets on the rear legs and will go back to the nest to feed the developing larvae, but some will be involved in pollination:


So it seems to be the bumblebees we have to mainly thank for the deliciously sweet-sour fruit we will enjoy later in the season. Of course to test this properly we would need to set up an experiment in which we excluded larger bumblebees from the flowers and only allowed smaller bees to forage, with appropriate experimental controls.  Would make a great project if any of my students are interested!  But it should give you a sense of just how complex the interactions between flowers and their pollinators are: the ecology of pollination is far from simple, despite what some would have us believe.

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Rewilding redux

Brazil river 2013-11-29 12.13.12

In an earlier posting I briefly mentioned George Monbiot’s current fascination with the concept of rewilding and provided a link to an animated video he had narrated.  As my first year lectures on species interactions and community structure have come to an end, one of the students on the course has pointed out that George has recently narrated another video called “How Wolves Change Rivers”, which deals with the effects of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the USA.  Following a 70 year absence, the presence of the wolves resulted in a trophic cascade which significantly changed, in a positive way, both the biodiversity and the functioning of the Yellowstone ecosystem, as well as aspects of the physical geography of the National Park, notably river behaviour.

It’s only a short video (four and a half minutes in length) and I strongly recommend that you watch it.  Not only is it powerful in its imagery and its music, but it’s also underpinned by some powerful, peer-reviewed science.  For example see this review by William Ripple and Robert Beschta, from Oregon State University, of the positive effects cascading from the presence of wolves in just the first 15 years following reintroduction.  

At the end of my lecture on Thursday I showed the video to my class and the response was very positive; the students seemed to be impressed and I hope it brought home the importance of what I’d been talking about this term, that ecological interactions matter.  Given the flooding problems we’ve experienced in Britain this winter, some of which seems to be related to how our rivers and flood plains are (mis)managed, perhaps there’s a case to be made for reintroducing wolves, bears and beavers to the Somerset Levels or the Thames Valley.  Given that these areas lie in the heartlands of Conservative and Liberal Democrat voting, it’s not likely to happen under the current coalition government.  But we can dream.