Tales from the suburban wild – food for fairies and a hunger for nature learning

A woman is walking in front of me on Peckham Rye with a four-year-old. He’s looking at something in his hand, a conker in its prickly case. “Perhaps it’s food for fairies and elves?” mum says. The boy frowns at the conker. “No, Mummy, they’re for animals”.  Busted.

Sarah opens the heavy Victorian door and we are greeted by the sight of twenty young faces waiting expectantly at the bottom of the porch steps. This is a class of eight and nine year olds, with three teachers and a couple of parents, who’ve trekked across the city from west London to learn about plant classification. It’s my first time volunteering with the South London Botanical Institute education team and I’m happy to admit to being a bit nervous.

Thirty years ago I was a secondary school art teacher, just up the road in Tulse Hill. I still loved teaching when I left, but I was itching to go back into education to study plant science. And I didn’t imagine for a moment that there’d be a point in the future – in fact today – when I’d be teaching children about plants instead of colour mixing. I’m hoping I’ll still remember the basics.

Sarah, SLBI’s education officer, gathers the class in the well-lit lecture room of this extraordinary place and deftly sets the scene for this morning. “This house was given to the South London Botanical Institute by this man, Allan Octavian Hume”, she says, pointing to his picture on the wall. “What do you think people study in a botanical institute?” she asks them. “Animals?” one boy says hopefully. It’s up to us to show them how exciting plants can be too.

Sarah explains that one of the things botanists do is work out how to divide the thousands of plants on earth into different groups. “If you were going to divide plants into groups, how would you do it?” she asks the class. There are various suggestions, including by size, colour and where they grow.

The children are put into three groups of six, ready to rotate through a carousel of three half-hour activities. Another volunteer’s going to help them make mini-flower and leaf presses in the library. Sarah will show them how to use microscopes to identify different seeds. I’m leading the activity in the garden, and I take the first group out through the back door.

This garden is probably similar in size to many suburban gardens behind Victorian terraces. How it differs from others is in ambition. Over five hundred different plants have been artfully squeezed into this space, from herbaceous plants to trees and bamboos, as well as the mosses and liverworts which have sneaked in. As well as the plants, there’s a pond, wormery and compost.

I think my job today is to try and get these kids excited about plants and have a sense of how different plants can be. Sarah has provided some worksheets and a set of hand lenses for having a closer look. She and I agreed before the session started that there was more than enough to get through and I’d need to narrow it down.

Gathering them around a table under a gazebo, I show them how to use the hand lenses to look at the skin on the back of their hands. “Hold the lens close to your eye”, I tell them. “No, not actually in your eye”, I have to add quickly. I ask them to move their hand towards the lens until it’s in focus.  It doesn’t take much persuading to get the teachers and parents to join in too. The skin gets a few “Wows!” and we’ve not even looked at a plant yet. Magnification never stops being magical. 

I hand round some little pieces of moss for them to look at next. The kids seem to find these quite exciting as do the adults. “Can you see any flowers?” I ask them.  Most say no, but they agree that mosses are amazing. One boy can’t resist saying yes he can see flowers, but his peers scoff gently. I explain that one way of organising plants is to split them into non-flowering plants and flowering plants and mosses are just one example from the non-flowering side. 

We set off round the garden to look for non-flowering plants and find mosses, liverworts and ferns. The ferns are a hit too. They enjoy looking at the spores through their lenses, and one boy remembers that they’ve been reading a story in class in which a dinosaur hides in ferns.

I’ve decided to simplify flowering plants by splitting two ways – woody and not woody, and animal or wind pollinated – more to illustrate plant diversity than real classification. We set off first for the grass section. “Anyone know what this is?” I ask, pointing at the bamboo, and they don’t. I tell them that it’s from a group of amazing plants – my absolute favourite – which are used for food, in building, to make clothes and which they probably ate for breakfast. Yay, grasses. They’re all surprised, adults included, to hear that bamboo is a sort of grass and so are wheat, oats and maize.  

Some of the nearby grasses are still in flower and I ask them why they think grass flowers aren’t bright and colourful like the roses growing in the next flowerbed. They seem to know about pollination and quickly work out that wind pollinated plants won’t need colour, nectar or scent. 

There’s just enough time to squeeze into the tiny greenhouse and talk about what they are used for. The kids enjoy having a shudder about the carnivorous plants before it’s time to swap activities and I repeat the exercise with the two other groups.

At lunchtime the class says goodbye and goes off to have lunch. Later, I walk back to the station through Brockwell Park and come across them all sitting on fallen logs eating their sandwiches. When they see me there is a chorus of hellos and lots of waving. 

There’s quite a lot of hand wringing out there among nature writers about how little urban kids know about nature. And it wouldn’t be difficult to find a child who couldn’t name a blackbird. Today has reminded me that most children get excited about plants if we do.  I love the proposal for a GCSE in natural history but also worry that there might be few secondary school science departments confident enough to offer it when it’s approved. But there’s also a lot of urban and suburban naturalists out there too. If we really wanted to enthuse children with our love of the natural world, we can. How about one naturalist allocated to each primary and secondary school to offer support for teachers? I’m up for it.

I’m sitting at my desk in our spare bedroom looking out at a rather wet grey garden and chatting to writer and editor, Anita Roy, on Zoom. We’re waiting to kick off our online nature-writing workshop. Just before eleven, participants start logging on until we’ve got twenty-nine, mostly from the British Isles but a few from the States too. There are some familiar faces from the previous three workshops but some new people too.

Anita’s bubbly personality and the buzz of performing, even online, lift my mood. Today’s theme, “common or garden magic”, is just the reminder I need of how important it is to focus on the beautiful, intriguing or unexpected in familiar natural things. We asked people who registered for the workshop to spend ten minutes beforehand closely observing something natural and familiar to them, to see it with fresh eyes, and hopefully they had the chance to do that. 

We work our way steadily through the workshop plan over the ninety minutes, with readings interspersed with silence for writing. Anita and I share bits of writing we love, and set participants a series of writing tasks building up to working on a piece of ultra-short nature writing – which I’ve dubbed ‘thumbnail nature’ – on the workshop theme.

Over the rest of the day and the next, following the workshop, twelve of the participants send me their pieces of polished writing to be considered for the online anthology. The focus ranges from a slug and bolete mushrooms to holm oaks and a maple leaf. All interesting and inspiring.

I flick through my digital photos to find some appropriate illustrations and work with Violet from the London Wildlife Trust’s communications team to launch the anthology. I like to put a lot of thought and care into this as, for some of these writers, it’s the first time they’ve had their nature writing published.

A few days later I send a survey out to the people who registered for four workshops I’ve led this year to find out what worked and didn’t for them. I’m pleased to see from the twenty-five responses that there’s a healthy mix of new and experienced writers, and some great suggestions for future activities.

A key objective of running these workshops is to try and reach groups underrepresented in nature writing. Of the twenty-five people who respond, twenty-two identify as female, ten have a disability and four describe themselves as from a black african or mixed ethnic background. One of the responses says “Thanks for considering accessibility and amplifying marginalised voices”. 

It’s true that things are beginning to shift slowly, with more women and nature writers of colour like Anita achieving a higher profile. Nature writing founded on accepted expertise – the “I’m going to tell you about plants or birds because I’m an expert” –  is still dominated by white middle-class middle-aged able-bodied men though. And that needs to change too.

A good proportion of the survey respondees – sixteen – say they’d be interested in workshops where you’d learn about aspects of nature to support your nature writing. There’s a hunger for nature knowledge out there, in adults as well as children.

Us London suburbanites, living outside the Underground network, can spend quite a lot of time on overground trains. I’ve realised that even on short journeys it’s worth looking out of the window rather than down at my phone, and I’ve learnt things by doing that. Repeating the same journey over time means you notice the changes. Over the last few years South American fleabanes seem to have become the most common trackside plant in my bit of the south London suburbs, taking over from rosebay willow-herb. The fleabanes and willow-herbs both have seeds with fluff, caught easily in the air turbulence round a train, and then whisked down the track on their way out of the city.

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