A Natural Historical Interlude

I’m just emerging from that special juggling act that UK academics perform at this time of year, when a stack of marking is chucked into the air alongside everything else. And given that last time out I provoked a few people (and reinforced a few preconceptions) I thought I’d ease back into things with some nice, non-controversial musings on natural history. Now first-up, I’m not much of a natural historian. Periodically I resolve to learn a relatively manageable group – British trees, say, or dragonflies – but to be honest, I simply don’t have the patience required to work meticulously through a key. Neither do I have that instinctive eye for the salient feature that characterises the great observers. Many’s the time I’ve thought I’ve committed to memory a particular unknown little bird, only to open the fieldguide and find I have no idea of the prominence of its supercilium, or the relative brownness of its legs.

Nonetheless, I muddle on. I am quite good at noticing things, and it’s really important for me to see lots of nature, even if I can’t put a name to absolutely everything. In fact I have a theory that there are two routes into ecology. There are those who as kids collected beetles, who cleaned up and displayed roadkill, or who have subsequently crossed continents to extend their life list of birds. And there are those of us who just sort of liked messing around outside – for whom the important thing remains the experience of nature as a whole, rather than the infinite dissection of its parts.

Over the last four years or so, my major outlet for this interest has been our back garden. One of the advantages of moving back to Sheffield was that a terraced house with a good sized garden fell within budget. And one of the pleasures of staying in the same place for a few years is that early work starts to bear fruit (sometimes literally).

For instance, the other day I trimmed the mixed native hedge that we planted and which is now in its fifth growing season. Originally just a line of sticks, it’s now around 5’ tall, thick and lush. Already populated by sparrows it also shelters blackbirds and starlings, ladybirds and hoverflies. Watching this new habitat flourish gives me as much satisfaction as any paper I might write.

Our pond, in progress (2009) and with water soldiers breaking its surface a year later.

Likewise, the pond I dug in 2009 is an endlessly fascinating mini-experiment. Perhaps I should have kept meticulous records of colonisation dates, but for me it’s enough to remember that the first pond skaters were skating before I’d turned off the tap from filling it; that the frogs appeared to be waiting for me to dig it (I have no idea where they bred before); that great crested newts found it within a year, as did water boatmen, dragonflies and damselflies. The weather’s been rather peculiar this year – the warmth in March got the algae blooming, but then it was too cold for the grazers to do much, so it’s a bit green at the moment. But fishing out some blanket weed at the weekend, I was excited to net three large dragonfly nymphs which I suspect will be climbing up some of the emergent vegetation any day now, as well as the first water beetle I’ve seen there. The birds use it to bathe in and drink from, as do the grey squirrels (which have far less right to be in a Yorkshire garden than the rats that I can’t keep away from the compost heaps, but which have much better PR).

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Some of the smaller garden residents: a pioneering pondskater, and its near-mirror image water boatman; frogs in various stages of development; a hoverfly suns itself; and a bee visits a foxglove.

Two more things which have got me into the natural history of my garden. First, buying a good macro lens for my camera – if you look closely, there is always something interesting to see. And of course, sharing it with a 1½ year old for whom all of this is fresh and exciting (and who’s new favourite word is ‘bee’).

Years ago, I studied Candide for my French A level. I’ve never been sure that I grasped in full the philosophical implications of its final line, “‘Cela est bien dit,’ répondit Candide, ‘mais il faut cultiver notre jardin’”. But I like to take it literally, and whenever the stresses and strains of the life scientific start to bite, I take the role of Candide, heading outside with my own version: That’s all well and good, but this garden won’t look after itself.