Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Finding inspiration

There his love grew for his garden, the countryside and for the birds, animals and flowers.  He saw them all as evidence of God's bounty and design for the world he created.

These words are about Gilbert White, one of the foremost naturalists in the UK.  The father of ecology, he inspired those who inspire us.  Darwin based his work on White's observations and his book, Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, published in 1789, went on to become one of the most published in the English language.  Admittedly, White had wondrous surroundings:
"Selborne lies cupped in a bowl formed by a confluence of soils and streams; the coutryside immediately around it is, without exaggeration, idyllic".

White was born at the vicarage, took on the family role of parson and shone out from the crowd.  What set him apart?  His attention to detail, his love of the natural world, his passion and fervour.  These qualities are the ones that inspire, that breed an enthusiasm in others.  A certain Nigel Brown, did the same for me.  He was engaging and his enthusiasm seeped through his hand lens and into my heart.

Nigel's love for botany and ecology, for plants and their surroundings, was so abundant, that it was impossible not to catch.  It was a joy to go to his lectures, never mind the field trips!  He and White would have been kindred spirits, both possessing the most wonderful qualities for a teacher to have, passion and an ability to be engaging on their subject.  They could bring their world to life, throwing themselves, certainly in Nigel's case, very literally into everything.  Often on our field trips, Nigel would disappear.  Part way through a walk through the ferns, or the woodland, or the meadow, Nigel would suddenly be out of view.  We quickly learnt to look to the ground, for our leader was more often than not, prostrate in adoration at the tiniest of creatures or the smallest of plants.  Nothing was too dull, even the moss.  Obviously to an untrained eye, moss is just moss.  You just wait until my winter moss posts!  What a glorious little beast.  Nigel taught me to look at the detail.  To see the beauty and respect even the microscopic flora.

One day, during the summer holidays, when teachers and pupils alike should be lazing around, licking lollies and frolicking in the endless sunshine (we can but dream in Wales...), Nigel took the time to take a few of us, the more interested ones in the class (ok, the nerds) to the sand dunes to hunt for orchids.  He taught us where to find them, what to look out for and how to emulate his prostrate position, laying on the sand barely daring to breathe in case we broke the magical spell weaved by the stunning little orchids.  There was even a glorious moment when we found a bee orchid!!  An extremely rare and wonderful find.  Nigel's delight at not only finding such treasures but at igniting the same passion very visibly in his students said it all about this passionate botanist.

That day hunting for orchids along the sand dunes was really the time that I began to develop.  I think my passion for flora, my attention to detail and my love for capturing images can all be traced back to that summers day.  On numerous occasions after that, I dragged my parents back to that beach to search for orchids at any given opportunity.  Gradually, my camera got used more and more, until it became a permanent fixture in front of my eye.  Macro, the close-up option, became my preferred setting and so was born a passion for nature, its' delights and its' workings.  A passion for unearthing and devouring the tiny detail and making a record of it.  A hunger to combine nature and capturing the moment.  That beautiful crossing of science and art.  An explosive world, brought to life with colour and bursting with energy.  A combination so powerful and one that has shaped me.  Creating an inquisitive mind, nurturing a young, struggling scientist to convey science and its' beauty in the only way possible to her; through the eye of a lens.  All thanks to the inspiration of greats like Gilbert White and Nigel Brown.  I hope that people continue to burn with a passion for the things they love, be it nature, or books, or something else, it is the only way to keep something alive.  To pass it on to others and enthuse through our own enthusiasm.

I have spent quite a few weeks over the past few years in Hampshire collecting data from lovely apple orchards.  On the last visit, I managed to visit the delightful village of Selborne and popped into Gilbert White's house.  It certainly is a very lovely place to visit!  It is called The Wakes, White lived there for 66 years of his life, and is in an idyllic setting during "...a half hour stroll (you) pass through oak forest, chalk downland, sandy heaths, water meadows and a pattern of agriculture".  During 1954, there was a public appeal to save the house for the nation and Robert Washington Oates, a relation of Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates, put forward the money to maintain the house as the "Oates Memorial Library and Museum and the Gilbert White Museum Trust".  What a beautiful marriage of the adventurer and the observer.  A combination of nature and detail, documenting all of life's adventures.

White was a keen gardener and increasingly took a close interest in the natural world around him.  He grew a range of his own wild flowers, fruit and vegetables whilst making observation of the wildlife around him.  He was apparently the first person in the area to grow crops such as potatoes, which had only recently become a stable crop in the UK.  He lived in the days when research was glorious, before all the politics and issues surrounding the attraction of funding.  He was the leader in radical thinking, preferring to study living creatures within their natural habitat instead of taking a dead specimen away with them.  As a result, White was the first to distinguish the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler as three separate species because of their different songs.  He made notes on everything, even earthworms!  I find it absolutely incredible that White never missed a day in his observations.  He arranged for people to stand in for him if he knew that he would be away and the flora, fauna and weather continued to be recorded.

The house is delightful, with an award-winning tea room (always important), but for me, it was the garden that was an absolute dream.  He has organised kitchen gardens mixed in with flowing natural areas.  I was lucky enough to be there on a beautiful spring day.  There was a magnificent display of snowdrops and daffodils, planted naturally along the rolling contours of the garden.  I don't think anything screams out spring more than a display of the affore-mentioned delicate flowers.  Bold and yet delicate in the way they confidently sway with March winds.


Speaking of daffodils, now is the time to plant your bulbs for next spring.  Early planting is recommended but really you can leave it up until Christmas time and still rely on a good show.  Plant the bulbs three times their own depth, in clumps of five or ten with two to three inches distance between them.  This will give the impression of a bunch that can be admired.

 Don't be too quick to tidy up once the foliage dies at the end of the daffodil display.  Allow the faded foliage to die down naturally for six weeks after flowering so that it can feed the bulbs and ensure more flowers next year.

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