Growing understandings

Growing Understandings

Author: Michael Holland, FLS

My name is Michael Holland and I am a Waltham Forest based freelance nature educator, wildlife gardener and author of a children's book about the wonderful world of plants called 'I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast'.

My first visit to Suntrap wasn't until quite recently, around 2015 when I took my daughter along to a holiday session about invertebrates where the staff were kind and engaging. It was nice to be on the receiving end of guided nature experience with a child of my own! It's such a wonderful resource that has clearly inspired generations of people about nature in all its forms. The very fact that Suntrap has survived over 50 years is testament to its importance and track record in nurturing awareness of the world around us.

Part of my love of nature is down to my own parents who grew a lot of their own foods. We lived in a leafy part of North London close to woods and 'The' Heath, and regularly visited the countryside where I was encouraged to explore the woods and hills. For my 8th birthday they gave me a copy of ‘The Pip Book’ by Keith Mossman which shows how to grow all sorts of things that you might come across in the kitchen such as dates, avocados, pineapples and lemons. This was absolutely brilliant for me and I really experimented a lot with my fair share of failures and successes. This was my first proper hobby and got me well and truly switched onto plants!

I went on to study Ecology at university and then began volunteering in environmental education as a way into a career. Subsequently for the past 25 years I’ve worked in environmental education at Holland Park Ecology Centre, Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden.

Throughout this time, similar to the team at Suntrap, my job and mission is to inspire people -young and old - about nature: covering botany, composting, flight, chocolate, ecology, art, literacy, numeracy, history and much more. For many of the youngsters that I meet during workshops, this can be their very first close up guided experience of an aspect of nature and it’s always lovely when my enthusiasm for and love of the subject rubbed off on them. As an educator, I learn so much about the natural world, myself and other people along the way. I’ve been in awe of nature just as much on my own patch as I have in the lush tropical jungles of Borneo or the varied British landscapes I've explored.

I wholeheartedly agree with the foreword to their book 'The Amateur Naturalist’, Gerald and Lee Durrell say, “...the wonders of nature are not confined to exotic places like the tropical forests of the world. They are just as accessible in your own back garden, if you search for them. Through the naturalist’s eyes, a sparrow can be as interesting as a bird of paradise, the behaviour of a mouse as intriguing as that of a tiger…”

I’ve always been fascinated by ethnobotany (uses of plants by people) so I was thrilled when I was approached by Flying Eye Books who liked the way I taught and wanted a book about plants for children. In 2015 I started writing and 5 years later 'I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast' was published.

My book introduces plants by talking about what they are and how they survive - from their basic requirements to life in extreme conditions like deserts, jungles and underwater. There are 12 DIY activities to try including leaf printing, corn flour slime and powering a light bulb with a potato. I've then explained a number of ways that we use plants in our daily lives - from fabrics and foods to Myths and medicines. It has been beautifully illustrated by Tokyo-based artist Philip Giordano who had really brought my words to life.

Bear this in mind...As well as giving us a firm foundation about our own world and it's natural systems, a 2020 report from Natural England suggested that regular access to nature significantly increases our well-being, gives us a long-term love of the environment and the feeling that life is "worth living". Now that's really saying something- the power of the great outdoors!