Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Ponds, life and the death of a scientist

Sometimes wildlife writers pull out literary phrases and quotes from the greats (White, Clare, Manley Hopkins) in a desperate bid to make their own writing seem better and more authoritative somehow. If that truly works then this blog post will possibly win me an award. Are you ready…?

I have a quote for you. It’s about ponds, and how incredible they are for learning. And it was written in 1880. (Yes, I own an old book. Aren’t I learned etc. etc.). Here goes…

“The pursuit of such studies, in their lowest results, is a good school for the exercise of patience and perseverance, and in their highest it bring one into contact with the manifestations of Divine power, as exhibited in a world hidden from the uninquiring eye, but withal as wonderful, if not even more astonishing than that in which we live, and move.”

Translation: ponds are bloody excellent.

The quote comes from M. C. Cooke’s Ponds and Ditches, part of the Natural History Rambles series. I absolutely love this book. Even though the cover’s hanging off and it’s well-thumbed, I feel like I can see a past world full of enthusiastic boyish (or girlish) endeavour and discovery about wild places. And there’s no mention of health-and-safety anywhere.

The tattered book now sits on my desk like a memento mori. A reminder of a Victorian time, when learning about nature was easier, instinctive and more, well, natural to young people.

This resonates quite a lot with me at the moment. I’m coming up to working with my 100th school in the past year, which is a milestone I’m quite proud of. One thing I’m not proud of is how few of these schools I’ve successfully managed to encourage to put a pond in (or make-good their current pond) for educational learning.

It’s quite shocking how many schools have a pond that remains unused for learning because it’s overgrown, dried up or it’s turned into a stagnant lifeless mess, largely useless.

In my experience the teachers know these ponds need fixing, but there’s too many competing priorities in the school for the teachers (or site-managers) to step up and realistically take the bull by the horns. Money’s an issue too, but another problem is a lack of confidence about pond management: what exactly needs to be done to keep the pond in a good condition for use as an outdoor study area? And it’s not just the schools I visited, research undertaken by Froglife (and their excellent Leapfrog project) paints a similar picture.

But hang on. Is it really the end of the world if schools don’t have useable educational ponds on site though? After all, many schools get their pond-dipping fix on field trips to nature study centres, right? Well, sadly, this is happening less and less because these ex-situ educational ponds are also under threat.

Death of the field centre

Field centres offer something out of this world, offering young people field experience and a chance to see real wild animals. Plus young people get to work with proper ecologists - scientific role-models. And there’s more: the field centres provide everything else - microscopes, nets, identification guides, toilets and sometimes a gift shop. Mostly though, field centres provide memories, direct experiences of outdoor life on this planet, and sometimes they create the emotions and passions that define us as adults.

It’s no surprise that 60% of people cite fieldwork at school as having a “crucial impact on their pro-environmental behaviour” (according to the Field Study Council's excellent Teaching biology outside of the classroom? Is it heading toward extinction? report in 2002).

Sadly though, field centres are becoming a strained community, eroded by two forces.

Firstly, many schools (that I work with at least) can’t afford the increasing cost of hiring a coach, and have to think of cheaper alternatives or cancel field-trips as a cost-cutting provision (more on this here). And then on the other side there’s the fact that some local authorities view field centres as easy pickings in the economic cutbacks (in fact, I think the Field Studies Council (FSC) are looking into this and are publishing something soon). The result is that many field centres are closing.

So in school and out, educational ponds are harder and harder to come by.
These educational habitats are becoming like an endangered species; starved of attention, isolated, fenced away from human contact, often only the preserve of the rich. It’s death by a thousand cuts, and frankly I hope that we can raise the profile of this issue somehow. (I urge you to join the FSC’s Save Fieldwork campaign by the way).

To me, ponds are like eggs in a cake. Without them we’ll fail to make the big spongy scientists of the future. And without scientists we become a boring stagnant society, lacking discovery, lacking passion. Our adventurous spirit lost. We become a big floppy proto-cake. A species plateau.

All this, plus without scientists we drop the baton in helping future generations protect the natural world that’s so life-giving for, well, everyone and everything.

It’s all quite heavy and depressing stuff and sorry to tarnish the reputation of this normally perky and cheery blog. So, time for a quote, once again from my century-old Ponds and Ditches. This one’s about studying freshwaters:

“No branch of science, moreover, has been more humbling to the boasted rapidity and omnipotence of the human reason, or has more taught those who have eyes to see, and hearts to understand, how weak and wayward, staggering and slow, are the steps of our fallen race.”

When read slowly these beautiful words sound almost like etchings on a gravestone. I guess time will tell.

More soon, Jules (P.S. funding news, as usual, below).


Trust for London - Max. Value: Discretionary

Financial assistance is available for London-based voluntary and community organisations that are carrying out projects that aim to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Thomas Wall Trust - Max. Value: £ 1,000

Grant for registered charities undertaking educational and social welfare projects in the UK and for individual disadvantaged students for vocational courses or courses concerned with social welfare.

Woodward Charitable Trust - Small Grants - Max. Value: £ 5,000

Grant for community organisations that encourage social regeneration through education, rehabilitation and outreach in the UK.

1 comment:

  1. Magic words, keep up the good work. I ran a project in a number of schools in the early nineties. After a few weeks parents started to call in to say they did not know how they where effecting the water in there area. Others where negative about the ideas. Overall it was a susses. I feel we now live at a time, which provide little space, time to think, or be with nature. I would be bold in saying even farmers no longer relate to there fields. Its time to take a deep breath and move forward in what you believe in. You are laying down a foundation for the future. That is why its tough at times, but keep going, be true to your self. One day, one day soon. this will have an effect. Every one that is making a move away from the norm, is have a challenge, take care.


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