Casting a plankton net to collect algae, somewhere in Scotland (possibly Loch Earn), April 1985.
At some point between leaving Westfield as a rookie ecologist with an enthusiasm for Sphagnum, and finishing a PhD on mosses at Durham I started the slow metamorphosis into a phycologist. Brian Whitton expected his PhD students to help out in undergraduate practicals and my lack of phycological training up to that point was not regarded as sufficient reason to excuse me from this duty. It was a steep learning curve but, in turn, it opened windows onto new worlds that have kept me fascinated ever since.
Brian had an old school natural historian’s approach to undergraduate practicals. Technicians were sent out to local ponds and came back with handfuls of vegetation which were squeezed and scraped to yield rich harvests of algae. At the start of the practical, no-one had any idea which species might be present; three hours later, with the help of a handful of books in a range of languages (we just looked at the pictures) and cajoling from Brian, the demonstrators, at least, emerged older and wiser.
Straight after Easter, the third year botany students were taken on a week-long field trip to Loch Lomond, staying at University of Glasgow’s Rowadennan Field Centre, and learning about algae at a time when most of them would really have preferred to be getting on with revision for their finals. However, once they arrived at the field centre, set amidst the forests on the east shore of Loch Lomond in the shadow of Ben Lomond, they usually mellowed. It was a glorious location. We went out to various lochs and streams, sampled different habitats, collected a few environmental measurements, and then spent time in the laboratory trying to name what we had found. In the evenings most of us made the three kilometre walk to Rowardennan Hotel for a pint of beer.
On one of the days we made a long excursion, down the east shore of Loch Lomond, then up the west shore, making a short diversion at Tarbet to Loch Long, the only sea loch we visited during the week. Then it was back into the vans and up to the north end of Loch Lomond, stopping at a stream in Glen Falloch before sampling Loch Lubhair and Loch Linhe. The final leg swung south past Loch Venachar to Lake of Menteith in the Trossachs (‘the only lake in Scotland’) before returning to Rowardennan in time for dinner. In one long day we had seen marine and freshwater habitats, sampled hard and soft streams and lakes, planktonic and benthic habitats and seen seaweeds as long as our arms and microscopic algae a 100th of a millimetre in diameter.
Durham University botany undergraduatest getting to know freshwater algae at Rowardennan Field Centre, April 1985.
At this time, the Durham botany degree was strong on biochemistry and molecular biology and notoriously light on traditional botanical skills. There was a running joke during my postgraduate years that some of our molecular biologist colleague’s plant identification skills ran no further than reading the label on a packet of seeds. Reductionism ruled, with teaching on whole plants and their interactions with the environment pushed to the edges of the course. The honours botany students were taken on a two week field course to Austria at the end of their second year to learn about alpine plants. This week in Rowardennan dealt with the 75 per cent of UK’s plant diversity that has now dropped off most undergraduate curricula over the past couple of generations. And, once again, the demonstrators, acting as intermediaries between Brian’s extensive knowledge and the near complete ignorance of the students, were probably the principal beneficiaries.
There were other beneficial outcomes to the course. I spent long hours walking to and from the pub sharing our experiences of travelling in the Himalayas with one of the students. This same individual (and her distinctive orange cagoule) cropped up in more of my photographs than a hypothesis concerning the random distribution of students on 35 mm film would predict.
Reader, I married her.
Durham undergraduates sampling a stream in Scotland during the algae field course, April 1985.