Anyone involved in admissions or graduate recruitment in ecology will be familiar with the stereotypical opening of the personal statement:
“When I was a child, I loved to play outside in nature. I watched the birds and the insects and the flowers and I knew that I wanted to spend my life studying them.”
Something along these lines opens the majority of the applications I read each year. Perhaps for some it’s actually true, though I suspect that most are teleological. Either the author is trying to convince me, or has already convinced themselves, that the whole direction of their life has been moving steadily and inexorably towards ecological research from their very first awakenings of consciousness.* Who am I, hard-hearted cynic, to stand in the way of manifest destiny?
Why am I so sceptical? I too am passionate about nature. I genuinely love being outdoors, collecting data, or simply observing natural systems and trying to figure out how they work. I grew up in the countryside and was most at peace when taking my dog for long walks through the fields and woodland or climbing trees. This bucolic upbringing is bound to have had a lasting influence on my chosen direction in life.
And yet… the evidence for a similar effect isn’t there from anyone else in the village, other than those who have continued on the family farm, for whom options were more limited. My siblings and friends from childhood include a doctor, dinner lady, teacher, policeman… none of whom are remotely associated with nature. There is one other academic, my older brother, who actually works on wood, or more strictly cellulose. That said, he’s a materials scientist and predominantly investigates its structural properties in the lab. He might enjoy long walks but he’s not an ecologist.**
There are other anecdotes I could pull together to tell a partial story. We did tie old wellies to a rope and throw them in a pond to try and catch newts. That probably happened a handful of times and I don’t recall ever reeling in anything but mud. I remember my father encouraging me to help in the vegetable garden, and the excitement at eating my first crop of radishes. They were to be my only harvest, and any further assistance was through compulsion. It may be true that I once took myself off into the woods in Germany, disappearing for a whole day to the great consternation of my parents, then casually strolling back into town at dusk as the search parties were being assembled. I wasn’t lost in the embrace of nature; I just wanted to get away from the family for a bit.
I could tell a different story, of the boy who came home from school every evening and promptly ran upstairs to play Sensible Soccer on his Amiga until his hands developed callouses. The child who lagged behind on family walks bleating about the imposition.*** A bookworm, happier sat indoors reading science fiction than out in the sunshine. All these would be equally accurate, if similarly selective.
At no point was I ever a spotter or a collector, two traits that I frequently hear colleagues assert are key indicators of those with a great future in ecology. My plant taxonomy is entirely self-taught but was developed late and only in order to allow me to do fieldwork. It would be a lie to claim that I spent sunny afternoons as a child learning flowers. I do collect — mainly West African music and obscure European electronica. The boxes of entomological specimens I brought back from Borneo have languished in my office for over a decade, unidentified, and I retain them more through guilt than any abiding intention of rectifying this.
To this day I still have a profound disinterest in many aspects of the natural world. Quite honestly, I don’t care about birds. I couldn’t identify any British bird by song and the few I know by sight are only the most common. The idea of birdwatching as a leisure pursuit is anathema to me. Give me a glass of wine and a book any day.
There is at least one thing I recall from childhood that links directly to my current career, and where the narrative thread is not stretched to breaking point. I always — always — wanted to travel. My parents were well known for welcoming people from all over the world into their home. Their hospitality knew no bounds and I was lucky enough to be exposed to visitors from all manner of cultures and backgrounds. The superficial details are forgotten, and probably left little impression, but the undercurrent was an awareness of a wider and exotic world out there that I needed to see.
It was for that reason that I was so keen, while an undergraduate, to take part in an expedition to Kamchatka. It was there that I first realised that forest ecology was the path for me. Since then, and probably missing a few, I’ve worked in China, Malaysia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Russia, Australia, Uganda and all over Europe. I’ve made friends across the globe, eaten strange foods, drunk peculiar alcoholic beverages and danced awkwardly to mesmerising beats. I can sing songs in languages that I don’t even understand. I lost my religion and replaced it with a ever-widening appreciation of the breadth of human culture. And yes, I’ve seen some of the most incredible wild places on the planet, and returned with beautiful data.
Ecology was an excuse to travel, and the travel remains one of the great blessings of my job. It’s not the reason I do it — unravelling the mysteries of forest growth has long since taken over as my main obsession. Nevertheless, I’m fortunate enough to be writing this from a research station in Portugal where I’m teaching an undergraduate field course. Tonight I will drink local wine and plan the next adventure. It’s Mexico this summer, and I have an awesome collaborator in Ghana who really wants me to visit…
* Other ecologists have written about how the path into their current obsession was not a straight line, and involved large elements of chance and coincidence. Childhood experience may have played a part, but not the defining one.
** He did once cite me, although mostly for humorous reasons, and not entirely positively.
*** Like any child, I had phases. There were periods when I would run ahead, dashing round before collapsing in a heap exhausted. But to emphasise those while ignoring my awkward patches would create a false narrative.