How to make an ecologist #1


Looking back at approximately 177000 words that I have written on this blog over the past three years, mostly about the unprepossessing end of biodiversity, I do sometimes wonder to myself how I got here. Or, perhaps to put it in words that may be flying around my reader’s heads, why didn’t I get a proper job like most other people?   So I took the opportunity of a New Year visit to my childhood home to try to answer that question.

The starting point is a semi-detached house in Harold Wood, on the eastern edge of London.  It is almost literally on the edge because at the far end of Redden Court Road, when I was a child, there were fields, whilst at the other end there was the start of the urban sprawl, extending unbroken (more or less) all the way to Heathrow Airport where the mix of housing, shops, light industry and offices peters out and is replaced by fields again.

There were hedgerows lining footpaths and country lanes just a couple of kilometres away from my house that were ideal for brambling in the late summer and autumn. It was a family chore that I tolerated rather than enjoyed, knowing that the outcome was blackberry and apple jam or hot crumbles to eat with Sunday lunch, both of which I loved.   On those days, we reverted to a primitive hunter-gatherer state as we filled our plastic bags with juicy ripe berries and, subconsciously, learnt about the habitats where we might expect to find blackberries. It was not just hedgerows; brambles seemed to spring up on patches of wasteland but also in woodlands, particularly at the edges and in clearings where a little more light was able to break through the canopy. Later, when I was studying ecology at university, I learnt more about ecology of brambles, learnt that they were plants of forest margins and that hedgerows were, in essence, artificial, elongated forest margins. The bramble thrived, in other words, in places that were neither field nor forest.

And, later still, I wondered if ecologists, too, were nurtured in these marginal environments, whether we were creatures neither of town nor country.   I have no statistics to support this hypothesis but I can, off the cuff, list half a dozen ecologists and botanists, two of some eminence, who come from the same London suburb as me, and this prompted a train of thought. On the one hand, a person from the middle of a city is too isolated, too distant from the countryside and too focussed, perhaps, on urban living to have any profound interest in nature. On the other hand, a truly rural person – an increasingly rare breed in Britain – is surrounded by nature, probably making a living from the land in some form. So nature for these people is simultaneously something that is familiar and which must be tamed or conquered in order that they can survive.   Between these two extremes are people like me, close enough to the countryside for it to pique our interest, and for it to be possible to hop onto a bicycle and get to it, yet not so immersed in it that we took it for granted. My hypothesis is complicated because so many people these days live in the country yet have essentially suburban lifestyles, commuting by car to work, reliant on supermarkets for most of their food, watching TV in the evenings and generally insulated from the harsher realities of country living.

The turning point for me came on my twelfth Christmas when my parents bought me a microscope. It came packed in a large polystyrene carton with neat slots for slides, samples, pipettes, forceps, dissecting needles (which I still have in my dissecting kit) and even a scalpel, albeit rather blunt. A few years ago, whilst tidying out a cupboard, my mother found it inside a wooden box that I had made for it during a woodwork class at school. She had brought it up to Durham where it sat, for a while, on my desk, dwarfed by my current microscope. It looked laughingly cheap and plastic by comparison, and I struggled to get it into focus when I tried to use it.   The magnification, theoretically, went up to 900x: I remember that this was written in big letters on the side of the box, though you were lucky to see much at magnifications greater than about 100x.   But, if its deficiencies were all too apparent thirty years on, there was enough here to open my eyes to other, hidden and mysterious worlds.


A Thomas Salter microscope, similar to mine.  

I was twelve years old. I was approaching adolescence, realising that I lacked the aptitude to get into the school football team, let alone play alongside Bobby Moore (who I often saw practising on West Ham’s training ground, alongside our school playing field).   I hadn’t really settled into the local scout group, I had lost interest in Top of the Pops, still two years away from the invigorating effects of punk rock, and I was not yet interested in girls. Instead, I retreated into my own worlds, catalysed by books. I had acquired, over the years, a long row of Ladybird books and it was the stories of explorers which really grabbed my attention. Captain Cook and David Livingstone were my heroes, but there were others too, and my row of books was later supplemented by accounts of Chris Bonnington’s ascents of Himalayan peaks and Thor Heydrehl’s stories of crossing oceans on primitive craft.

My own boundaries were not drawn so broadly.   The Ingrebourne, the unprepossessing muddy stream which flowed through our local park, was the limit of my world in primary school years but, as I grew up I was able to use my bicycle to make longer explorations.   However, a more profound journey was taking place inside my head. It did not involve distance but scale. There was a very basic scientific textbook that we used in my first year at secondary school which described, alongside the life-cycles of frogs and other staples of introductory biology, simple microscopic life forms such as Amoebae and Hydra. And, with a jam jar wedged into the bottle carrier on my bicycle, I set off on summer afternoons during the school holidays, to explore the new, exotic worlds where these might be found.

In retrospect, my sampling method of dipping this jam jar into the water was hopelessly optimistic and my memories are more of disappointment than excitement, but I do remember once finding a Hydra wriggling about in a sample from the Ingrebourne. This is a tiny relative of sea anemones and jellyfish, with a fine pencil-thin body to which were attached a cluster of fine tentacles, which it extended in order to trap yet smaller prey with stinging cells. And, in a sample from a local park where I sometimes fished with school friends, I found an Amoeba: the simplest of all animals, so my school textbook told me. It consisted of no more than a microscopic blob of protoplasm which crept along by changing its shape to extend jelly-like “pseudopodia” in the direction it wanted to travel.

Perhaps a benefit accrues from not being spoon-fed experiences, from the struggles and disappointments of doing rather than reading or watching natural history on television?   I would like to think so but the reality is that, over time, other interests took over from my early dabbles in microscopy.   I discovered an interest in girls and older friends introduced me to Neil Young and Bob Dylan.   My horizons shifted again, this time in a more urban direction as I started to make trips to London, to the Marquee Club and Hammersmith Odeon to see bands playing live. The interest in the natural world was, however, kindled and biology was one of the subjects that I chose at O-level, and the only science that I studied at A level (my maths not being good enough for me to be comfortable with either physics or chemistry). When I had to choose a university course, I hovered between Geography and Biology, eventually selecting the middle route of Environmental Science and, in October 1980, packed my bags and headed around the North Circular road to Westfield College in north London.

Postscript: I have only recently discovered that my early years in Redden Court Road coincided with the musician Mike Oldfield’s residence further along the road.   His family moved here in the mid-sixties, a couple of years before us, and he went to a local grammar school, achieving a single O-level (in music).   His album, Tubular Bells, a massive seller in the early 1970s, was partly written whilst he lived here.   He wrote about Harold Wood in his memoir, Changeling (Virgin Books, 2008): “The new house was on Redden Court Road, number 8. It was all right and I do remember it had a wonderful dawn chorus.”   Ornithology’s loss was music’s gain?


No. 8 Redden Court Road, Harold Wood, childhood home of Mike Oldfield, who composed part of Tubular Bells whilst living here.