1. To begin, how did you become interested in the sciences, and can you tell us a bit about your background?
As a child I was always interested in nature and this was nurtured during my first degree which was in ecology. I then went on to study forestry and work on forest ecology projects in Scotland, Africa and South-East Asia. This involved working closely with indigenous people whose knowledge of the forest was legendary. I probably learned more from these pre-literate tribal people than in all my years in university education.
2. The stories in Tree With Golden Apples are accompanied by your scientific interpretations. Why do you think it’s important that readers/educators/storytellers have both?
The people I lived with and learnt from in rainforests of Borneo, New Guinea and the Moluccas were great storytellers – and I understood that stories when combined with practical activity and practice can be a very powerful and effective tool for education. We are curious animals by nature and stories can reveal some of the hidden secrets of the natural world. This to me is what science is about.
3. Did you have to do any special research for the project?
My research focus has always been on natural regeneration. This is more important now than ever. We can reverse the decline in biodiversity by allowing nature to recover. There are spectacular examples of this everywhere – including in the abandoned coal mines in the post-industrial landscape of Midlothian where I live. This is what give me hope.
4. Why do you feel that the relationship between science and storytelling is important?
I think we need to respect the storytellers, the fire-keepers and elders, and accept that there is more than one way of understanding the natural world. There has sometimes been an arrogance in science which is not helpful. My advice to fellow scientists is to be humble and listen to indigenous voices. Their cumulative experience stretches back for generations and you might gain some insights that will help you ask the right questions and find enlightened answers.
5. What advice do you have for science educators that are trying to make their lesson plans more engaging for students?
Get the children outside. Every naturalist will tell you it was fieldwork that really taught them how ecological processes work. And use all the resources available to help the students engage with nature, including their imagination. Use the language of exploration, discovery and adventure to stimulate both sides of the brain. Lessons learnt in nature, like resilience, empathy and wonder, will be lessons for life.
6. Do you have any suggestions for young people wanting to get into the sciences as a career?
Be curious. If you don’t have a natural curiosity for how things work you wont do well in science. Often the hardest thing for people to learn is that everything is always changing. If you can embrace the changes and hold a desire to guide change in a positive direction you will make a good scientist.
7. Are you reading anything good these days?
I love reading work by indigenous scientists like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Diana Beresford-Kroeger who have a foot in both camps, but my all-time hero just now is Suzanne Simard, scientist and storyteller, and her Finding the Mother Tree could possibly be the best tree book ever!