Reindeer

Reindeer mother and calf


Can Santa’s Reindeer save the Titanic world; the world as we knew it?– We think so 

“History makes little sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes little sense without biology. Knowledge of prehistory and biology is increasing rapidly, bringing into focus how humanity originated and why a species like our own exists on this planet.” 

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence 

I know, and have known for a long time, that the living world needs more naturalists to help it survive. That’s enough to have driven me to write. But I’m driven further by an urgency brought to us by modern technology and research. The urgency is two-fold 

  1. Climate change and the global loss of biodiversity are happening quicker than was imagined, every time we look. 
  2. Naturalists, biologically or psychologically, need an early start. 

Let’s start trotting. This is a big subject so I’ll  start with an ice-breaker. 

Why is our World like the Titanic? 

I don’t want to depress anyone so please try to be amused. Bing Crosby’s coming soon so stay with me while I warm you up. It seems that Team Titanic set out from the wealthiest country on Earth, aboard the World’s largest ship, hailed as unsinkable, with the hope of breaking the trans-Atlantic speed record. Ignoring warnings gained from technological advances, they advanced into an ice berg, which cut a hole in the ship which was about as unsinkable as an egg is unbreakable. 

Earth’s a bit like an egg-shaped ship, crewed by people who didn’t build her and don’t know her vulnerabilities. The most powerful aboard, as well as the paying passengers (voters, tax-payers, subjects etc) are regularly failing to see the risks, exposed by the latest technology, which all point to icebergs ahead. Ice bergs falling off the melting ice caps of the one planet in the universe known to be capable of supporting life. Many fail to believe or understand that Earth has already hit its iceberg thanks to the industrial fervour that built the Titanic and the wealth that surrounded it.  

The Captain was sleeping

The judder of the collision rattled a few cocktail glasses but didn’t disturb too many people. The Captain was asleep in bed, (as, I believe, were Hitler on D Day and George Bush on 9/11). In the crows nest however, there was consternation and panic. Whereas at the opposite end of the ship, her belly, there was bedlam, as freezing water gushed in like a tsunami. Those not dead already, tried to slow the inevitable, in a desperate and heroic attempt to save the fine-diners above them and the planet… er, I mean ship. Despite this, the actions taken above were slow and sloppy in a belief that the ship wouldn’t sink or that help would arrive long before she did. But she was sinking fast.

Tragically and lamentably, nowhere near the number of people who could have been saved were saved as almost empty life boats rowed away from the crowded ship. Many failed to return when the people were flailing in the freezing water, in the pitch black of night, with only the stars and the lanterns of the lifeboats giving any light at all. Is this how we’ll behave when sea levels rise? I think the clues are already there. 

‘Can man save this fragile earth’

Ever since I could read, or be read to, I’ve been learning about the disappearance and decline of species from our planet. For over 20 years I’ve been reading about wider threats that include humanity in the species at risk. The glossy 1988 centenary edition of National Geographic magazine bears a hologram on its cover of a shattered earth above the question… “CAN MAN SAVE THIS FRAGILE EARTH?”

Reindeer blog national geographic magazines
National Geographic magazine

Wade through more than 20 pages of adverts for luxury cars and luxury holidays, one of which has a whole page dedicated to a photo of a glittering key which is captioned “This is the Key to everything.” The following double page spread is entitled “EVERYTHING.” Beneath the golden title is an awfully ugly gas-guzzling Chrysler car. I was warned about such horrors to our environment when I was 16 and younger. Yet here they are, advocated by inclusion in a nature magazine. I admit to  enjoying national geographic articles but I’ll never buy another. I ceased subscribing to BBC wildlife magazine long-ago for similar reasons.

Affluence

Anyway, after more than 20 pages of affluent life style tempters and goaders we reach the contents page. One of the articles listed , ‘Population, Plenty and Poverty’ says… “Skyrocketing world population and increasingly affluent life-styles are straining the earth’s resources. Stanford biologists… say population control is essential for the survival of humanity.” I wonder if they thought the affluent were the ones  who needed controlling? They were the first into the Titanic’s sparse compliment lifeboats. In the top story they say, “Will we Mend our Earth? As National Geographic Society enters its second century, one of its goals will be “to encourage a better stewardship of the planet,” [writes the NGS president]… A society sponsored Symposium… expressed calls for a new era of global responsibility. I wonder how that’s going? 

Twenty years on…

Nearly 20 years later, the NG’s June 2007 edition is subtitled, ‘The Big Thaw’ and focuses on global warming after pages and pages of adverts for luxury products and luxury travel to urban areas that were once glorious wilderness. 

Reindeer blog - the national geographic irony!
Luxury and the big thaw!

Don’t get me wrong. Holidays are great. Travel can be great when achieved responsibly. It’s the responsible bit we have trouble with and when we (or they) transform paradise into parking lots and concrete jungles for the masses of people, who’ve been told they’re missing out, then something is wrong. As a little hint at what’s possible, the Americas, Antarctic, Australia and the theory of Natural Selection were all achieved by what’s now called alternative technology, wind power. It’s always been free and safe to use and canvas makes a pretty trustworthy holiday home. 

A giant iced bun

The glossy pictures of holiday locations and desirable objects mixed with diligent scientists alerting us to potential planetary perils  all look lovely. Well sort of, but they’re just not getting it. It’s like someone eating a giant iced bun, whilst telling everyone else they need to ration their food. Or someone in an empty life boat calling to another in a sinking ship… “You need one of these.” To ‘save the earth, (the life on it’s skin) we all need to face the facts and change our ways and, most importantly, tell our children the truth about what we’ve done to their world.

We’ve ripped holes in the earth’s atmosphere, the hull of our ship, and we continue to pump Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into it. Only the meekest, poorest, unluckiest beings are truly suffering at the moment. But as both luxury cruisers and research vessels travel further and further to find ice, the disappointment and suffering will be global eventually. Then it will be too late to save what still lives today. Prevention is better than cure my Mum always said and we all know really that prevention is somewhat more achievable than a cure from death or extinction. Hmmm, let’s cure these risen sea levels and melted ice caps. How will we do it? With industrial technology?

Krill

I read a fabulous book about Krill recently, but have to say I’m a little bit worried by their joy, or pride or perhaps enthusiasm for their ever bigger and better ice-breaking ships. Which allow them to cut ever deeper into the ever shrinking sea ice to study their subjects. Like vapour trails across the sky, I think the penetration of delicate environments with brutal, fossil fuel driven machinery, may have a much bigger effect than the sum of its parts might suggest. I’d like international agreements to leave the Antarctic and Arctic alone completely if we can’t do it with sustainable and benign methodology. 

Spaceship earth

It’s a bit of a Christmas Carol situation aboard spaceship earth. All the money and the power that goes with it is in very few hands. Who are careful not to lose their advantage, regardless of what goes on out there, in the delicate ecosystems (the engine -rooms) that fuel our breath and our biodiversity and psychological well-being. It’s somebody else’s responsibility. Are there no prisons, workhouses? As Scrooge might say, passing on the responsibility to a faceless disconnected and fratching ‘community, who don’t really care and cannot really cope. Who out there today is acting responsibly or will take responsibility for anything? I think it has to be us. Here’s another quote from Edward Wilson… 

“Only wisdom based on self-understanding will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.” 

Edward Wilson

Nature on a plate

I won’t Scroogify Sir David here, but I will use the poor soul to make my point about how much we humans are struggling to get the point. His programmes are wonderful, educational, exciting to watch and they even carry environmental and conservation messages. But the air miles they’ve taken to make, the road miles in 4x4s, the footage from flying machines, the exposure of delicate eco-systems to eco-tourism and all that purports to be eco-tourism! The affluent lifestyles weakly condemned by National Geographic, as people leave behind their block-paved drives and close-shaved lawns to relive what they’ve seen on TV for themselves. To make their friends jealous? So they’ll retaliate by travelling further still to poolside locations where nature is handed to them on a plate from a powerboat or ‘land cruiser’?

All that stuff, along with the industry that creates it for play and curiosity; all that stuff, is contributing unabated to the sinking of our ship. And that’s one of the better sides of the use of fossil fuels. We’ll get to reindeer eventually. I promise. 

The Spirit of Christmas past 

[This was the original start to this blog but I keep adding to it] 

Here’s Bing Crosby now; relax, enjoy. 

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. Just like the ones I used to know…” 

Dream-on Bing but you can’t have one, it’s called climate change, brought on by, among a few other things, the sumptuous jet-set lifestyle you led and encouraged. 

Bing, hailed as the first multi-media star, knew the value, aesthetic and financial, of seasonal snow. He never would have sung that he was dreaming of a mild Christmas like the ones he’d got to look forward to. Similarly, ‘dashing through the mud’ is not festively evocative and neither is… ‘car horns honk, are ya listenin?’. Winter wonderland is what we want even though we’ve experienced its cold and uncomfortable side. It’s a change, it pleases the eye, it’s cleansing. We’ll get on jet planes and cruise ships to experience it, even though we know that their fuel, production, maintenance , landing places and associated infra structures are big contributors to global warming. Can reindeer bring our white Christmases back?  

Listening for sleigh bells

It’s Christmas Eve 1970.  I’m six. Bing’s a singin’ on the wireless. I’m listenin’ for sleighbells, but the tree tops are glistenin’ with raindrops, not snow.  I think I’ve been good enough, because all my worries about bad behaviour the year before didn’t stop Santa coming and I’ve done nothing worse since. Our lack of any chimneys or fireplaces didn’t stop Santa coming last year either – I think he’s coming. My biggest worry is that I’m not important enough and he might forget me. Interesting eh? The thought of Santa wandering around our garden, let alone coming into the house, seems inconceivable to me. Why do I deserve that attention when shopkeepers and bus drivers barely look at me and teachers act like I’m wasting their time?

I’m told to leave him a glass of whisky (the Christmas Spirit to be passed, right?) and a chocky bikky or mince pie. I’ve heard of cookies on American TV programmes, but don’t really know what they are. I wonder if Santa has to click on ‘Accept Cookies’ on the plasma screen above the mantlepiece these days? Anyway, I’m happy to leave him both (cookies and booze) because I don’t like either. They’re too sweet, along with Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and, really, most of Christmas itself. We have about 50 baubles on our glittering tree but only 2 count: one that looks like a trumpet and one that looks like a cat. I like visual representation, abstract décor does nothing for me.

Reindeer – (we’re getting there)

The most important thing tonight is reindeer. It’s reindeer night. THERE WILL BE REINDEER IN OUR GARDEN! The excitement is palpable, though perhaps, in retrospect, maybe a little irritating too? 

Me: “Will they park on the roof? We don’t have a chimney, how will he get in?” [Genuine question] 

Mum: “He’ll come in through the door” [a complete fib which leads to my next question] 

Me again (you can cope from here on) : “How will he open it without a key?” 

“He has a special skeleton key that opens all doors.” 

“Skeleton Key [hmmmm, I should have put one of those on my list] , does that mean he’ll park on the drive outside the front door?”  

“Yes, it probably does.” 

“Mum…? You know I’m not supposed to see Santa? Well… is it alright to see his reindeer?” 

“You wouldn’t be able to see the reindeer without seeing him love. The rule is that you need to be asleep. And, erm they’re invisible.” 

“Invisible?” 

“Yes. He can turn them invisible for parking and he can turn invisible too.” 

“Oh. Can we get their food ready now?” 

“Yes, go get a carrot, I’ll get some hay.” 

If I’d done my research I would have said… “Aren’t we putting out reindeer moss?” 

Dash away all

Anyway, after a night all tucked in my bed, while visions of fewmets danced in my head, Old Knitty Whiskers, as Mum called him, turned up, delivered the goods and he and his reindeer dashed away, all. The disgusting drink and the sweet stuff were gone, so was most of the carrot and the hay. 

Reindeer blog - listening for sleigh bells
dash away all

“Yes… they came! Did Santa, bring the reindeer in here to eat this?” 

“Yes, er, er, No! No, he probably… He’ll’ve taken it out to them.” 

“I’ll go out and look for tracks and reindeer poo.” 

Then my sister spoke and spared our Mum any more awkward explanations… 

“It’s invisible! Can we open our presents now?” 

With Christmas presents past, lets meet the spirit of Christmas future 

Less than a year later, I was told the truth about Santa. I did not see it coming no matter how the sleigh bells were jingling. I don’t remember the full conversation verbatim but I said something like… 

“So, it’s all a lie?” Followed a little later by… “but the tooth fairy is real isn’t she.” 

Entertaining as the Santa joke is, it ends in a sort of bereavement that I think we could do without and it puts God in a pretty dodgy position.  

“You there, in the shadows, never daring to visit but controlling our governments, laws and philosophical teachings, are you real?” Imagine if all the holy men, clergy and what not announced in the churches, mosques and temples, that the various deities people are worshiping aren’t real. The people they trust the most revealing that the superbeing they obey does not exist and they’re on their own. It might do the world good to know that everything that happens here on earth is now down to us. 

But here’s the truth that crushed me back then. 

“So, if there’s no Santa I could have waited up and seen the reindeer bring the presents. But… 

there never were reindeer in the garden, invisible or not; were there?” 

At least Polar Bears aren’t going extinct!

This is a monumental and depressing discovery for the young naturalist, they’ll be telling me polar bears are going extinct next. They’re not are they? 

For kids like me, nature is a teddy bear. It’s something reliable that you can return to for a psychological cuddle. It rewards with fascination and, as Santa’s workshop along with the great man himself and the existence of magic, fairies and elves sank into the Arctic ocean, nature was my life-raft. I had reindeer to cling to but I had to ask… 

“Reindeer still exist, don’t they?” 

Like most people on this planet, my parents didn’t know a reindeer from any other deer, but they confirmed their existence. Phew! 

What’s left when Santa leaves? 

I love connecting things in nature. Some reindeer herds migrate 3000 miles in a year. I grew up in Nottinghamshire, about 300 miles from Scotland’s introduced reindeer herd in the Cairngorms and 1000 miles (as the reindeer flies) from wild reindeer in Norway. It’s about 3000 miles to the north pole so, with sea ice to walk on, real reindeer could have made it to my garden.

About halfway between the North pole and Nottinghamshire is Svalbard. Our nearest breeding Walruses, we know they can get here, though the sea-ice is their home. Today the sea-ice is a little further away each year with thanks, ironically, largely to the industry of Christmas itself. But once, Nottingham was buried beneath the ice-cap itself, which reached to the present course of the M4 motorway and reindeer grazed on the Mediterranean coast, a refuge for them and our ancestors who evolved together to cope with climate change.

Lichen

From the Mediterranean to the Arctic circle various species of Cladonia lichen cling to the ground in un-tamed wildernesses. Collectively, I know them all as reindeer mosses, although one species Cladonia rangiferina is their main tundra diet. Meanwhile on the hot heaths of Dorset, we nurture another Cladonia lichen that forms the most important habitat for ladybird spiders. Lichens are a co-operative of sorts between algae and fungi. They whisper to us about our environment, as they tell us how clean the air is and how pristine our wildernesses. Deer graze and help maintain the heaths we work on.  

Reindeer moss
reindeer moss

A figure teeters in the gateway between mythology and history for me. His name is Robin Hood and he is strongly associated with Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire (where my parents grew up) and deer. Depictions of him grow ever stronger and more vivid, although there’s very little to prove his existence. But the stories strongly evoke our traditional links with the wild and fair play. As Santa was spirited away, Robin Hood stood more solidly for me. A Yeoman, a normal chap, standing up against the economic powerhouses and the loss of the wild and rights of commoners.  How many messages do we need to tell us that wilderness is, and always has been, important to us? The ghosts of Santa and Robin Hood watch us play with the future of Life on Earth. 

The ghost of Christmas yet to come 

Having failed to pay attention to the needs of our fellow man, our children and life on Earth, it is our descendants and not so much us, the perpetrators, who face the grim reprisals that Ebenezer Scrooge was threatened with.  

Around the world glaciers and ice caps melt away and the sea deepens, swells and warms. There’s a double meaning here. The ocean expands as it warms but warmer, less dense, brine is picked up more easily by the wind and the moon and so the swell increases too. The weather, Earth’s metabolism quickens and extreme weather becomes more common and more damaging. The World’s poorest people and most vulnerable wildlife are the most at risk. But so is the richest farmland and some of the wealthiest cities.

The more we burn, the more products we make, the more we throw away and even the recycling process makes a mark, the more the atmosphere and sea warm up. Deserts expand, land area shrinks and the permafrost melts releasing even more greenhouse gasses into the environment along with, so I’ve heard, anthrax from long-dead reindeer. It’s a grim future, people are not changing. We need to act fast and learn fast. Who learns the quickest? Who has the most to lose? Children! 

Ebenezer has a panic attack when he sees his own name on the grave presented to him by the ghost. But there is a worse apparition; the grave of our children or their children. But for many the future may be worse than that, as you have to live first to gain a grave. We’ve reached point where we are taking control of our own evolution and we have the means to change our planet’s climate. But do we know how to drive this ship? 

The early start for young naturalists 

There is much literature on this but who’s read it? Try this link for starters: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/FR394  

Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson and the Life of a Scotch Naturalist by Samuel Smiles are among my favourites. Along with Robert Falcon Scott’s last letter to his wife concerning the fate of his 2 year old son who was to become one of the most famous and accomplished naturalists and nature artists on spaceship earth. RFS implored… 

“Make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games; they encourage it at some schools. I know you will keep him in the open air.”  

Robert Falcon Scott

‘The Boy’ went on to found the Slimbridge Nature Reserve, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and design the World Wildlife Fund’s panda logo. This among many other achievements, which included inspiring thousands of nature conservationists as well as shifting global policy on whaling. His father’s inspiration was undoubtedly his great friend, the naturalist and artist Edward Wilson (one of my favourites) who died with Scott.  

That early start was almost certainly crucial for young Peter.

Listen to nature

Speaking about Ernest Mayer, “often acclaimed as the greatest evolutionary biologist of the twentieth century,” Stephen W. Kress states in his book ‘Project Puffin’… 

“Mayr was reared in Bavaria by parents who loved hiking in search of flowers, fossils and mushrooms, and by the age of ten young Ernst could identify all the local birds. Years later he would assert that his early exposure to the outdoors was critical to his development. He believed that few people pick up an interest in nature after childhood, and those who do are most likely to focus on just one area, such as bird-watching, without developing a deep understanding of the surrounding ecosystem.”  

Stephen W. Kress

I come across people like this all the time. They are academically educated to the highest level but they cannot hear what nature is telling them and struggle to solve conservation problems or put theory into practice. Making clever and pragmatic naturalists has never been more important than it is today.  

Rewilding children

In ‘Feral’ George Monbiot starts his 10th chapter, The Hushings, with the following words… 

“Of all the World’s creatures, perhaps those in the greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children’s engagement with nature has been faster than the collapse of the natural world.” 

He points out very briefly that one of the biggest barriers to children getting outdoors is also one of the biggest threats to planetary health, traffic. Two of my school friends died in motor accidents, both were keen naturalists. So there are many reasons to slow and quiet our roads and make way for safe pedestrian access on every road, even motorways.  

I subscribe to a journal called British Wildlife. It’s how I try to keep up to date. There is a regular column I enjoy called Twitcher in the swamp and I hope Twitcher won’t mind me quoting an entire section of his April 2019 column which I largely agree with… 

Nature Isn’t science 

I recently re-read some of Arthur Ransome’s books about children playing around boats in the Lake District. My generation can just about empathise with the Swallows and Amazons since we did similar sorts of things ourselves. Specifically, Twitcher was Dick, the geeky boy naturalist with his telescope and specs and notebook, often in a world of his own. But to most youngsters today these kids might as well be martians. 

Mary Colwell’s campaign to put natural history on the GCSE syllabus is a worthy attempt to bring children back into contact with nature, ‘to make nature part of British society again’ . It would be good for them and I hope she succeeds – even if it resulted in Coniston Water  getting a bit crowded with kids in boats. All the same, naturalists are born, not made. It is a question of temperament.

Much as we would like our children to be Swallows and Amazons, the fact is that the Dicks of this world tend to be outsiders.  One reason why they turn to natural history  with such intensity is that they are not members of the gang. Naturalists need space to be quiet and watch and be patient and think. Poor old Dick is basically uncool, and if he imagines he’s going to get off with that pretty girl in 4B, he’s got another thing coming. 

On the other hand, teachers who claim that natural history is on the syllabus already are deluding themselves. They equate nature with science. Mary’s point is that nature is not just science, it’s everything. It’s about the world around us, in the sky, among the leaves, under the earth, in the water. It’s about seeing and listening and experiencing and understanding. In the end, nature is about us.” 

British Wildlife magazine

Learning outside

George Monbiot adds in the same chapter mentioned above…”Perhaps children would do better at school if they spent less time in the classroom.” 

Much of my learning about nature was done outside, often alone or with a few animal encyclopaedias on rainy days and winter evenings. But the most critical period, I believe, was snuggled up with my grandmother reading book after book after book. My sister and I used to climb into bed with her clutching books on every available morning. We were so lucky she lived with us and had the time and patience available to give. Those few years were really a lifetime of good luck I think. It’s that experience I want to share with every child who has promise of becoming a naturalist, snuggle up and read our books, enjoy nature with us the way we enjoy it.  

Gateway Species 

If you are reading this you will probably already have tolerated me wittering on about gateway species. Gateway species are paradoxical in being common rarities. They are common species with a crucial aspect that is rare among other species… accessibility. Animals and plants that we can actually engage with easily in the company of children, with little or no harm to the species involved are a real rarity. They include species such as sticklebacks, earthworms, common butterflies and shore crabs. These species can inspire children to be excited about nature, to study, care for and understand it at a critically early age.

I cannot express how mega-mega important such interaction with real lifeforms is to helping children gain a real understanding and empathy for the natural world. But where do reindeer fit in? They’re neither common here, nor all that rare and not hugely accessible. I had a gateway interaction moment with a reindeer years ago, but I wasn’t a child. It was more of a senior moment; but a little more of that later. 

I’m Dreaming of rain deer 

Reindeer are something different to gateway species, but they are just as important as those mentioned above. For the young naturalist, there isn’t much going on at Christmas. You are often stuck inside because global warming has turned white winters into wet ones and the theme is ridiculously sumptuous food, abstract designs in temporary decoration and a ridiculous panic around making one day ‘perfect’, often in secret from the unsuspecting recipient. Even the young recipient misses out because parents, relatives and friends are so busy preparing ‘The Day’ which will probably leave them exhausted and stuffed with food and alcohol.

This is my experience of Christmas. My parents did a good job and my family today enjoy it, but it is a season cluttered with people complaining about how quick it comes, how quick its over, how much it costs, how they can’t get what they want, how they can’t get time off, how they eat too much etc etc. etc. This atmosphere doesn’t do any child any good it either bores them, irritates them or makes them feel guilty. Christmas is for children, right? 

The seasonally themed relief amongst all this, for the young naturalist, is a fairly short list: 

  • PLANTS x 2 – Mistletoe and Holly 
  • BIRDS x 2 – Robins and aaaaaaaaaaaaahh…penguins. The latter having no accurate place in Christmas but that’s another blogmas. Thanks to Harry Potter, snowy owls flutter into our attention occasionally and a partridge in a pair tree might squeeze in between the unfortunate turkey or goose. 
  • WHITE MAMMALS – we can squeeze a few in here such as polar bears and arctic hares, though they don’t get much attention. But you will recall, the most Christmassy Mammal of all… 
  • REINDEER 

Reindeer as ambassadors 

Easter’s great for wildlife, you’ve got the bunny of course and eggs… any egg; so almost the whole animal kingdom to occupy you. Chocolate as a focus is great because it originates from a tropical tree with a fascinating story and Easter comes with all the joys of spring. Halloween is good too: Bats, black cats, owls, spiders, pumpkins, skeletons; eye of newt and toe of frog and all that; it’s made for the naturalist. 

As I wildlife educator, I have clung to reindeer at Christmas, like a castaway to floating debris. They are not common enough or safe or accessible enough for me to dub them gateway species. I think they may be even more important than that. They are flagships for nature in its darkest hour (the winter solstice) and I’m going to call them ambassadors. Like Christmas itself though, they go out like a light on that one day. They’ve been, they’ve gone, that’s it. With a click of their heels they’re gone. That’s a literal click ; reindeer joints click as they walk. But as December grows and days shrink, reindeer are a promise, and for me, they are promising. If we interpret their message properly, they may promise us a white Christmas… if we’re patient… very very patient and very very good. 

Let’s make lists, are we naughty or nice 

Here in the wealthy, Christian influenced world a semi-pagan, immortal, demi-god comes dashing through the snow (or puddles) into our lives once a year. We are promised he will come, if we are good. He has a list of who’s judged good and he requires a list of our desires that he will judge our worthiness for.  

The slight risk here is that, it’s possible, the wealthiest parents, often with perhaps, some might say, immorally gotten gains (in environmental and wildlife conservation terms; perhaps even in environmental terms) who perhaps, don’t give their children much emotional attention, could reinforce their children’s confidence that their (perhaps) greedy, avaricious and gluttonous ways are good in Santa’s eyes and thus create a money and greed based culture, that is self-perpetuating and highly destructive to the natural world. But surely Santa would never ever let that happen or what’s the point of Christmas? I don’t know a religion that encourages gluttony, waste and greed, do you? What are we doing at Christmas, and in whose name are we doing it? 

Why does Santa come here with gifts? What is he rewarding our children for and what does he want us all to do in future? I could never really grasp what Jesus wanted from me apart from to offer my other cheek, the one not bruised yet, to the bullies. The best I could ascertain was that he wanted me to do as I was told by grown ups, which included not telling fibs. But I’d been told a whopper. Along with magic, truth had collapsed around me. Did any of this stop me delivering the Santa myth to my own children? No, I did the same thing. Kids love it, we all love a hope of magic and we dwell aboard planet earth in fear that we or our kids won’t ‘fit-in’.

Some soft toys we bought turned out to still have the security tags on them. Instead of taking them back I decided I could get them off myself but, despite my precautions, some dye leaked out and stained them. I told the boys that a little bit of reindeer poo had splashed onto them on the journey. They grew up, un beknown to me, in the absolute certainty, that reindeer poo is turquoise! 

Santa’s dreaming of a white Christmas… or his workshop will sink 

In his Gaia books, the ecological scientist, James Lovelock, once part of a team to work out how we could make other planets hospitable to life, calculated that glaciations, ‘ice ages’, are the Earth’s comfortable state. If that’s true, how must it feel now? 

We are told that Santa (the epitome of all that is good) is towed by trusty reindeer from his home in the north pole. Here’s what this means to me if I take it literally or, to put it another way, this is what I think we tell children. 

  • Santa is Good 
  • Reindeer are good 
  • The North Pole is good 
  • For us to be ‘good’, we must share the good man’s values.  
  • Santa likes the wilderness and solitude, he comes out once a year but does not want us to say hello 
  • Santa focuses his attention on children – he makes them feel that they and their actions are important 
  • Additionally, all of science backs up the above goodnesses and recommendations 

So why do we allow another version of Santa and the massive myth around the enigmatic graeco-turkish saint, to sell and promote almost everything that is bad for our world, our health and our wildlife? I think we all know that Santa, Christmas and our sense of ‘good’ whether we are religious or not, has been corrupted. Can we reboot? Are Coca-cola and endless streams of blister-packed plastic tat and sugar rich treats really… good? A mind blowing industry bulldozes Christmas into existence every year with people panic buying gifts, misjudging tastes of people whose opinions they fear and creating vast amounts of waste for that single day.

An annual judgement day, driven by a fear of not fitting in. Santa, of course, grew from something pretty good. A chap who interpreted the best bits of the bible and did his best for real people on earth. The idea from it is the anonymous (and thus completely altruistic) giving of useful gifts to those in need. Obviously, he didn’t manage the anonymous bit very well! 

“Whose rich enough to have given me this? Or, have they St. Nicked it? 

Reindeer ARE good, but how do we know? 

 The earliest humans who sent messages to us that we can still read today, painted fantastic pictures of reindeer on the walls of caves which tell us that they encountered them; that we humans encountered them; far, far further south than they live today.  

Among the earliest messages from ancient humans to modern humans is: 

“WE LIKE REINDEER. WE KNOW REINDEER. THEY LOOK LIKE THIS” 

It’s a simple message but so is “Every little helps” and “Vorsprung durcht technik” . Cave paintings are about as close as we can get to knowing our earliest selves as sentient beings, and what was important to us when we lived alongside and within the natural world that nourished us. 

I like reindeer. I used to think that the word ‘deer’ was an abbreviation of the word reindeer and all deer are alike. They are not alike and they inhabit different ecosystems. 

REINDEER ARE, PERHAPS, A PERFECT CHRISTMAS TREAT OR TEMPTER FOR GETTING CHILDREN INTERESTED IN OTHER DEER, THE OUTDOORS AND THE NATURAL WORLD. 

Mis-represented deer

More than 90% of the imagery I see representing Christmassy reindeer is inaccurate. It is usually red, fallow or white tailed deer. The imagery is not as solid or long lasting as a cave wall and is often printed onto single use plastic, glossy paper or polyesters etc. The wrong deer, misleading children about what reindeer actually are, advocating damage to our fragile environment and their’s. Misused reindeer, what would Santa say? 

Climate change (caused by production and consumption and the infra structure that carries consumption to our doors) puts Santa’s home in the North Pole and the habitat of reindeer under an intense threat requiring urgent action by all of us. I am astonished that Santa has not written to the UN or issued a supporting statement to COP26. Anything from him would carry a lot of weight! What do we know?: 

  • Climate Change is bad for Santa 
  • Climate Change is bad for reindeer 
  • Climate change is bad for the North Pole 

Who should be on the naughty list? Why does Santa keep coming?  

Environmental catastrophes

Like most environmental and wildlife catastrophes, the one we are ‘enjoying’ at the moment is likely to be slow and unnoticeable to most of us. Many of the voting and ruling public around the world don’t really care about their fellow beings anyway. They could care, all children start off with empathy, but it is drilled out of them. Look after number one and be a team player. Wildlife is not very farmable, not very eatable and most of us grow too far from nature to accept hunting as an agreeable form of wildlife management.

Science is the new god, it will solve global warming and give us ever lasting life and it is their responsibility, the great unseen them in lab-coats and suits who are being paid to sort it out. Imagine if Santa turned up at a shopping mall in a suit or a lab-coat. So here’s what I don’t like about slow and unnoticeable environmental damage in its broadest sense. 

I don’t like that I’ve never seen a living dodo, a Steller’s sea cow, a great auk or even a corn crake which could once be heard calling from almost every village in Britain. A few concerned beings notice a decline in corn crakes, or water voles or curlews, but once they’re gone, the next generation, un-used to them, does not know how to miss them, they’re strangers to a landscape they belong in. I do like to see lots of different wildlife around, and close to, where I live. It makes life worth living. That’s important for all of us. 

I don’t like oil spills, gas explosions or mining disasters. Alternative technology, on the whole,  carries much fewer risks to people and wildlife. I do like, windmills, sail-boats and homely, small scale, local solutions to energy needs. 

I don’t like the humungous amounts of plastic cluttering our planet or the headache of how we should deal with it. I do like things made from natural and sustainable materials. 

I don’t like seeing lone drivers, in squeaky clean 4x4s driving distances they could have walked or longer distances they should have used a more environmentally friendly vehicle for. I do like bicycles, horses, trains (except HS2) and seeing people making an effort for our environment. 

I don’t like tarmac, concrete or block-paving. I do like grass verges, pretty gardens, hay meadows and pastures. 

I don’t like wet winters. I do like snow and frost and Mmmmmmm… icicles! 

I don’t like the thought of melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels and eroding coastlines flooding the homes of people and other species around the world. I do like glaciers, snow-capped mountains and species-rich coastlines. That marshmallow world we once lived-in in the winter is disappearing fast, just as its namesake, the actual marsh mallow plant,  is disappearing due to drainage, sea encroachment on coastal wetlands, over-grazing and development in the coastal zones. 

Solutions?

All the above have fairly simple solutions if we share the same simple values. Buy local produce, travel less, travel more thoughtfully, use materials that require less processing and less fossil fuels; temper our desires. It may cost more to buy products locally but it costs less to travel less, so the one can pay for the other. It’s simple, but It’s not always easy, but that is our great challenge today, it’s hard to give up what you’ve gained and especially so when nobody else wants to give it up and we start to… ‘not fit in’. Here’s what Edward O. Wilson says and a good reason for those of us to stick together and sing out loud for all to hear… 

“People are intensely interested in the minutiae of behaviour of those around them. Gossip is a prevailing subject of conversation, everywhere from hunter-gatherer campsites to royal courts. The mind is a kaleidoscopically shifting map of others inside a group and a few outside, each of whom is evaluated emotionally in shades of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy and sociability. We are compulsively driven to belong to groups or to create them as needed, which are variously nested or overlapping, or separate, and in addition ranging from very large to very small.”  

Edward O. Wilson

So how do we fit in? How do we make caring for biodiversity interesting and cool? 

Rudolph

Fitting-in is right there in the Rudolf song. He was an outcast, they laughed at him and called him names. The greatest thing for him was that all those bullies loved him in the end; great, eh? Do we like that message or just the funny looking reindeer? Or is it the rhythm? Rhythm and Music are prehistoric too and immensely and intensely important to fitting-in and group cohesion. Here’s Frans dee Waal in The Age of Empathy… 

“Just as there are no human cultures without language, there are none that lack music. Music engulfs us and affects our moods so that, if listened to by many people at once, the inevitable outcome is mood convergence.” 

Frans dee Waal

I’m keen to claim that rhythm and rhyme are a big part of this same primaeval process. We remember a rhyme or a rhythm much more easily than a sequence of words or numbers without it. Times-tables are essential to my daily calculations. The numbers of days in a month sits in a poem in my head ready for use as does the alphabet song. Surely our natural behaviour is the best way to help us return to natural ways and the natural world. 

 I think our descendants will be more than justified in condemning our generation for our clumsy, careless and knowingly ignorant custody of their planet, before it oozes into their gob-smacked care, perhaps a lot too late. A few generations have become a wedge between ancestors and descendants with passions, skills, loves and actual species irretrievably lost just as our white Chritmases melt into wet ones. I’d like to think I did my best to stop wildlife depletion and global warming by educating children and adults together as quickly as possible to how our world was and is, and what it could be. A wonderful world with white Christmases. I think, like human art, our wonderful world could involve reindeer. 

Here’s how reindeer can help save our world 

I’ll go no further than this – 

Reindeer today are part of Christmas. They are a Christmas link to the natural world and to the real arctic and its threatened wildlife and people. For me, they are an opportunity to talk about nature, deer species and how to keep and enjoy wilderness. We’ve produced a book to help and encourage children to appreciate reindeer and the Arctic for what they really are. We don’t destroy the Santa myth, he makes an appearance. We’ve borrowed everything we can from what we know about human nature to help young naturalists become what they want to be, from having this book read to them as toddlers, right through their lives to a happily ever-after.

We are reindeer storybook

Taking the promise of reindeer coming to town, we let the reindeer speak in rhythm and rhyme, at a bit of a trot about their world and how we identify reindeer from other deer in Britain. It is aimed at producing new naturalists, who care for their environment, out of the confusion and consumerism of Christmas. We want people to turn off the TV, put down the mobile phone, dim the lights, and read this roughly hewn rhyming tribute to reindeer to their children, grand children and great grand children.

We are reindeer storybook

And then to read more, and to go out looking for them and learn about other wildlife in the process. Reindeer and all deer, need some form of wilderness even if it is a brownfield, wasteland kind of wilderness. We need wilderness too, or what are we… tame? The book, like our others, is intended aa a step back to the wild. It is funny but packed with information about real deer in the real world. You can get your copy here. If we could give one to every child, we would.  

But what we can do…

Is share this free downloadable colouring sheet of reindeer, red deer and fallow deer.

Reindeer outlines

And for our slightly younger audience – the reindeer calf

calf colouring sheet

Back to the Titanic

Like the unfortunate people in the engine room of the Titanic on that awful but calm and starlit night, reindeer, and the people who domesticated them have had a pretty rough time. The range of reindeer is about half what it was in historical times and greatly fragmented.  

Melting perma frost is releasing dead reindeer and even mammoths from its grip that have been frozen for many years. As it melts, the previously frozen ground releases plumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, making the climate change problems worse. As they melt, some reindeer release anthrax spores into the local assemblages of livestock and people. There is a theory that the black death was more than bubonic plague, but also an outbreak of anthrax. It’s tricky to grasp how a flea transmitted disease hopped all the way across Europe so quickly. But we know pandemics can still happen and we know that nasty diseases cope much better in warm environments. But what are we doing?… We’re warming our environment! 

Radioactive reindeer food

Reindeer are adapted to digest reindeer moss (more properly , though rarely, called reindeer lichen), a lichen, Cladonia rangiferina, that grows in the tundra. It absorbs ‘radiation’ from the atmosphere and had an absolute feast when the Chernobyl nuclear plant went into meltdown. The lichen was eaten by reindeer who became too radioactive to eat but not before many had been eaten and the life of the people who depended on reindeer went into meltdown too. I think you might be on the naughty list if you make Santa’s home and mode of transport radioactive! 

A close encounter

You’d think I’d hate reindeer. The gateway experience I alluded to earlier happened when I was working at Dudley Zoo. As I passed the reindeer enclosure on the way to a pond I was rearing crayfish in, a young keep at the gate asked me if I could help those within the enclosure. “Of course,” I said and strode in through the gate which she closed behind me. I’d worked with reindeer before and the two keepers I approached, I knew well, were each holding an antler of a deer between them whilst, I assumed, they attempted to administer some treatment.  

I grabbed an antler in each hand and said; “right then, what are we trying to do?” It was then that I saw their ashen, clammy face and they said in unison… “We’re trying to get out!” The rest’s a story for another blog but reindeer are not always tame or friendly. 

The World is no snowball everyone knows (it’s warmin’ up like thermal pants) 

You might even say it glows (with street lights and industrial plants) 

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