growing up with science

We tend to look at the past through the misty lens of memory, but still I rather think my siblings & I had a lucky childhood. I don’t remember that we had a heap of money (pocket money was doled out at the rate of a penny for each year of one’s age – doesn’t that date me? – but then, aniseed balls were 8 a penny!) but Mum & Dad made sure we had rich & varied experiences. An elderly friend of ours still recounts how Mum would get Dad to stop the car, on our regular ‘Sunday drives’, if she saw something that might be good in the family ‘museum’.

Museum? Well, it was basically a ‘nature table’ writ large. When we lived in Wairoa, we had an old house with a lot of outbuildings attached, including a wash-house complete with copper for boiling up the washing (not that I remember us ever using it; by that time we had a wringer washing machine…). Mum used to keep her old-fashioned ‘sit-up-&-beg’ bicycle in there too. Anyway, next to that was another longish narrowish room & there, in boxes & jars on benches & shelves, we had our ‘museum’. Bones we’d found on the beach or which Dad had brought back from his farm visits; collections of shells; dead insects in jars; bunches of teasels; bits of fossils… I don’t know whether our friends envied us, getting to keep all that stuff, or thought we were nuts.

And they encouraged us to follow our interests. My first ‘proper’ shell collection, neatly labelled & packed on cotton wool in a range of small boxes, grew out of that interestingly messy room. I had plenty of opportunity to add to it as just about every weekend we’d go for a drive. Sometimes it was to visit relatives in Gisborne or Tutira, but often it was to one of the beaches on the Mahia peninsula. Dad would fish, either surfcasting or using a longline taken out by his kontiki, which had a most ingenious arrangement using a barley sugar in a loop of string to drop the sail. When the barley sugar dissolved, the string slipped through a wire loop and the sail fell flat. Anyway, that would keep him occupied for ages, & after lunch (which as I remember almost always consisted of tongue sandwiches followed by pinapple rings from a can, & tea made with water boiled in a thermette) we’d swim, build complex sandcastles, dam the local stream as it ran down through the sand, or just fossick around & pick up whatever we could find. Either Mum or Dad could usually put a name to whatever we found, & the really interesting bits ended up in the room next to the laundry.

Mind you, we didn’t have to leave home to find something fascinating. There’s a photo in one of the many scrapbooks that my mother used for photo albums (long, long before scrapbooking became fashionable!) of my younger brother in the garden, down on his knees with backside in the air, industriously studying something – a snail? a worm? – through a magnifying glass 🙂

Then we moved to Hastings – & discovered science fairs! We all entered them, even my sister, who subsequently went on to leave the life scientific for greener (& arguably more lucrative) pastures as an accountant. She certainly saw a lot of the world in the process! We studied anything that took our interest, always with the willing support of our parents: fossil sites in Hawkes Bay, testing paper darts in a home-made wind tunnel, looking at cadmium fallout from the Awatoto fertiliser plant, investigating the effect of earthworms on soil structure & plant growth… My first ever scientific paper was the result of a science fair investigation. This was back when senior school students (today’s year 11-13) played a much more prominent role in the fairs than they do today (perhaps we had fewer alternative activities to compete for our time?), & working on those projects certainly drew me even further into science, bulding on that lovely casual way in which Mum, in particular, fostered her children’s growing interest in world around them.

A lot of time’s passed since then. We’ve all moved onwards, becoming successful in quite varied fields (including accounting!). And I think we owe a lot of that to the way our parents encouraged us to follow our interests, & our hearts, when we were young.