Tag Archives: Sunderland

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.

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story

River Wear in the 1980s

Every other Thursday I try to make it to the 6pm seminar organised by the Media, English and Culture department of the School of The Arts.  The seminars take place in the building adjacent to the one in which I work; they feature a diverse mix of internal and external speakers; and wine is always served.

Invariably I’m the only scientist in a room full of staff and postgrads with research and teaching interests as varied as 19th Century Gothic literature, Elizabethan playwrights, the history of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and the scientific romances of HG Wells.  So the wine helps to imbue a cosy sense of oneness with my fellow academics and by the second glass I’ve convinced myself that I can contribute something meaningful to the discussion which follows.  (One day I’ll have to record those conversations and listen to them sober…..)

The seminar this week was by Dr Jon Mackley, a specialist in the literature of the early Medieval and “Dark Age” periods.  Jon talked about the writing he’s been doing aimed at understanding the lost pantheon of gods worshipped by our Anglo Saxon ancestors, and their fates as feast days and rituals were absorbed into British Christian culture.  This replacement of deities put me in mind of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant novel American Gods, but that’s by the by.

What has this got to do with biodiversity, you ask?  Bear with me…..

Conversation afterwards got onto dragon-hero myths and (fortified by some cheap red) I brought up the story of the Lambton Worm.  This legend originates from County Durham, the part of England in which I grew up, and so has always been a part of my personal culture.  My dad often sang the first few lines of the 19th Century  song when I was young and in turn I’d occasionally sing it to my kids when they were very small, in a broad Durham dialect:

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the worm.

(Wikipedia provides a useful translation of the song for anyone born south of Darlington)

When I was thinking about the legend afterwards it struck me that there were some interesting metaphors regarding biodiversity and ecosystem services contained within it, beyond the culturally important “mythical biodiversity” of such creatures as dragons, unicorns and griffins.

The story of the Lambton Worm begins with young Sir John Lambton fishing in the River Wear:

One Sunda morn young Lambton went
A-fishing in the Wear;
An’ catched a fish upon he’s heuk
He thowt leuk’t vary queer.

Exploitation of wild fish stocks has always been an important provisioning ecosystem service for human societies in a local context, with Sunday fishermen such as John Lambton taking the occasional fish for their family; and at a national level, providing significant amounts of protein for the human food chain.  Global fish stocks are beyond the level at which they can be sustainability exploited, however, and a scandalous proportion of what is currently netted is thrown back into the sea, often dead, as “bycatch“.   The “fish” that Lambton caught was in fact a juvenile dragon (or “worm”) which looked so strange (and presumably inedible) to the young knight that he disposed of it:

But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was
Young Lambton cudden’t tell-
He waddn’t fash te carry’d hyem,
So he hoyed it doon a well

John Lambton throwing the worm into a well could be a metaphor for the way in which our society so often gets rid of the things that we produce and that we don’t want, with no real thought for its fate.  As a kid growing up in the 1970s close to the banks of the very same River Wear where John Lambton fished the Worm, I well remember the stream of turds, condoms, tampons and filth slicks that the river was expected to absorb and to transport into the North Sea.  Later I worked for a while in the local Vaux Brewery which flushed its untreated waste water in vast volumes into the Wear.  By then no one was bothering to fish the river.  In the 1980s new sewage treatment works were built to deal with the effluent of what was at that time the largest town in Britain. Slowly the water quality of the River Wear improved until it is now considered by the Environment Agency to be “one of the most improved rivers in England“.  A river which John Lambton would perhaps now recognise.

Alongside the quality of the water, the quality of life of people who live by or visit the Wear has also improved as the river’s ability to sustain cultural ecosystem services related to work, tourism and leisure has increased.  Which brings us back to the department of Media, English and Culture.  What is a muddy boots ecologist with interests in the biodiversity of species interactions doing sitting in on their seminars on a Thursday evening?  Beyond the fact that they are always entertaining and informative (and they serve wine), it’s the opportunities these seminars provide to draw parallels and create metaphors which relate to my own area of expertise which fascinates me.  Making such connections and spinning these stories is something my brain does without me asking it and I find them useful for understanding not just the complexity of the science I deal with, but also the environmental challenges facing humanity.  As a species we cannot get away from our evolutionary and ecological roots within the totality of biodiversity of planet Earth (a topic which I’ll return to in future blogs) and that is reflected in the cultural biodiversity of ideas and research topics that a university such as Northampton sustains.