A Christmas Wish for Nature

Blog post by Robert Morgan on 18 Dec, 2023
This Christmas, why not give a gift that will last a lifetime - a love of the natural world, Says Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer Robert Morgan. 

Christmas, they say, is for children, and it can be an exciting and magical time for them. Although too often the real excitement is seated in the anticipation. Snowfall on Christmas Eve, large families joyously gathered together, and a single thoughtful gift given lovingly to one another. This is, perhaps, a promise pedalled too far by the barrage of festive advertisements we endure.  We are all guilty, to a greater or lesser extent, of having Christmas shipped over from the far-side of the globe in the form of moulded plastic, an attempt to attain the projected expectation of a perfect Christmas. As a boy I recall, shortly after Guy Fawkes Night, an endless stream of toy adverts fired out of the goggle-box. Evel Knievel was launched across twelve London buses and landed perfectly onto a ramp, the Scalextric cars would never spin-off at the corners, and a happy family enjoyed tweezering vital organs out of a battery-operated patient. One Christmas morning, after being fed the dream of all these marvellous games and toys, I unexpectedly received a microscope. It was, with some disappointment, quickly discarded. Crestfallen, I returned to working out which away-strip my new Subbuteo team was supposed to be, and why I didn’t get a Neil Armstrong action figure and space-capsule.    

A tardigrade, or water bear - 2020Vision

A tardigrade, or water bear - 2020Vision

One damp day, a month or so after Christmas, I gave the microscope a go. Bored, I even flicked through the accompanying pamphlet. The set came with a few prepared slides, a fly’s leg and a rat’s blood cell, that type of thing. After following the badly translated Czech/English instructions, I ventured out to collect a cup of rainwater from the garden butt. With the pipette provided I gently squeezed a drop onto the slide, then focussed in, and suddenly a whole new realm of life opened up to me. Over the following weeks I discovered the hidden world of rotifers, cyclops, hydras and the wonderful tardigrades. The tardigrades, often referred to as water bears, are the most lovely of  microscopic animals, stout of body, with little black eyes, smiling mouth and four pairs of clawed legs. I’m in no doubt that long after Evel had lost his nerve, and the Scalextric transformer had burnt out, I was still discovering hidden worlds, which seemed at the time, only known to me.    

In 1912 the renowned explorer Captain Scott (who definitely had a snowy Christmas) composed a moving last letter to his wife. He wrote: ‘Make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games’. I learned, latterly, that Scott’s wife purchased her son – who of course became the famous naturalist and painter Sir Peter Scott – a microscope. Now, I would never promote a Christmas without games, and nowadays a microscope may seem a little old-fashioned and twee as a Christmas present; but the gift of an introduction to the natural world is one of the greatest gifts of all.  

A tardigrade, or water bear - 2020Vision

Robert with his granddaughter

Unlike the playthings of boyhood, my microscope has brought me a lifelong, child-like, wonderment for the world about us. So, to all the mums and dads, grandparents, or significant carers who want to share love, curiosity and a knowledge of true beauty with their children this Christmas, the natural world is the gift that keeps giving.  In what appears an increasingly hostile world, passing on this gift of love and appreciation of nature to our children may just save humanity from self-destruction, and our home planet a hundred thousand years of unnecessary recovery.  When, on occasion, I look down the lens of my microscope, I’m now reminded of the words of H G Wells ‘…with infinite complacency men went to and fro over the globe about their little affairs…scrutinized and studied through a microscope like the transient creatures that swarm in a drop of water’. A microscope can remind us how small and fragile we all are. My childhood hero, Neil Armstrong, wrote about his time in lunar orbit ‘… It suddenly struck me that the tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small’.        

Unlike Sir Peter Scott, the gift of a microscope did not lead me to a knighthood, international recognition and the founding of a conservation organisation that saved a species of wildfowl from extinction. However, fifty years on I still have a passion for nature, and I’m still finding hidden worlds, only known to me. My Christmas wish is that my grand-daughter will have that opportunity too.      

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