I was a wildlife obsessed child. I grew up in the 1950s in rural renfrewshire, close to the Ayrshire border, in a landscape of loch, hill, mixed farms of cows and crops, woods covering abandoned mine workings and sandstone quarries. Lapwings in every tussocky field, curlews calling from the boggy moors, yellowhammers in summery overgrown hawthorn hedges. Mysterious quarry ponds with huge water beetles and the occasional newt rising up from the deep.
My parents were both townies, who had grown up in urban Glasgow, from opposite sides of the tracks. After World War 2 my father swapped his “sword for a ploughshare”, digging potatoes and planting trees in our village garden; keeping bees and generally living a quiet life – a daily commute by steam train to an office in the city, along with many of the good burghers of our small community.
Both parents were astonished and delighted by the wildlife that appeared in their garden. They had spent every last penny on their bit of paradise – a large house and a large garden. An equally large mortgage and furniture bought in antique shops – no new furniture could be had even if they could have afforded it. A cuckoo calling from across Loch Libo, a kestrel hovering over distant fields, a weasel eating the dog’s bone on the front lawn, rabbits under the hedges, the call of the nesting wood pigeons from the tree in front of their bedroom window. All pointed out to their youngest boy, who was making his own discoveries along tree covered lanes, in the wilder parts of the woods, at the tops of many climbable trees and in the lochs fringing reedbeds. Strange squeaks and grunts from the marsh, loud bursts of song from reed buntings and sedge warblers and out on the water, jousting coots and displaying great crested grebes.
The Thames Express thundering past heading to or from that distant land called England – as remote then as Timbuktu. Smoke trailing out across the valley as the roar and thump of the huge engine echoed from the hill opposite, leaving peace in its wake, very little road traffic then, in the village itself we could fearlessly run our bogies down the big hill at the end of the main street.
Years later, a move from the village school – a Victorian building, a class of 5, the feel of the leather tawse on fingers and wrist, frozen milk bottles in winter, wasps in jamjars at the end of summer – Im in a city school, one of 32, learning maths and hypocrisy and with no clear view ahead. Just university [the first in my family], wildlife not a professional option, no school biology department.
University in my home city, high rise block learning. No dreaming spires. Just the horrors of 9am monday morning statistics 101 – fellow students talking about drink and football. Then…a class in biogeography and the old stirrings are awakened.
Our flat in Glasgow’s West End, living with the friends I had made on the Isle of Arran that summer. Wee John, Alastair, big George. John a superb ragtime guitarist with a lucrative job in the Rolls Royce factory – a Gibson guitar and a stereo with speakers big enough to sit on. Alastair and George both studying electrical engineering. All brought together by a mutual love of live music.
“Here, youve got to listen to this, youll never believe what I learned today!” Im back in our top floor flat, where the rush hour entertainment were the nightly road accidents on the Gt Western Road crossing below, never serious – we had a league table of car types. [Aye son, we had to make our own amusements back then!]. “There was this Austrian scientist, Von Frisch he studied bees, he showed that they could tell each other where the best flowers were, by doing a wee dance at the entrance to the hive. Isnt that amazing!” Whit!?..youre full of sh*t! My flatmates reaction was amused disbelief. What kind of nonsense are they teaching him at that place? Gullible fool. I was crestfallen. …”but he won the Nobel Prize!”
The next week I was back. I had been learning about tropisms [the turning of all or part of an organism in a particular direction in response to an external stimulus] which involved a practical demonstration. I gathered my flatmates together.”Right, this time I’ll show you, I can make the fish swim upside down!”. Yeah, right! …..One of the very few luxuries we possessed was a fish tank, complete with heater, lights and oxygen pump. Curtains were pulled, lights turned off, I got a piece of card [probably an album cover..Pink Floyd, George Carlin, Monty Python, who knows what…] and covered the top of the tank, I put the top light from the tank on the floor. I lifted the tank off the table and held it over the light. Half a dozen guppies, an angel fish and a bug-eyed fantailed black moor, called Charlie, all turned on their sides, desperately trying to turn upside down but held back by their swim bladders. They kicked and jerked around the tank…. Jesus Christ, look at that!!
and that was the last time they laughed at my tales of the wonders of biology.