Naturalists can be a downright scruffy lot. My father tells a tale of when he was out scrambling across the Sussex countryside many years ago, and exited his most recent trespass through a deep hedge and onto the public footpath right in front of a woman, and her young daughter, out taking a dog for the walk. He would have carried a tatty faded rucksack, a battered metal vasculum (plant collecting box) and dirty field notebook; ball-point pen and hand lens would both be attached by tired pieces of string to his lapel buttonhole. Mud-splattered, torn and scratched he no doubt presented a rather startling sight.
Despite his best smile and cheeriest ‘Good afternoon’, the little girl was not taken in for a moment and muttered an urgent stage whisper to her mother: “Mummy — is that a tramp?”
I have never let him live this down. And I rail at other unkempt naturalists to do better with their personal appearance.
There is, how shall I put this, a post-hippy tradition (?) amongst naturalists to look roughly casual in the field. Part of this is the knowledge that there is no point getting your best clothes covered in grime and grit and grass stains, scrabbling about on all-fours around an unusual clump of sedge trying to get the best angle to photograph it, or dissecting a nicely fermented cow pat after dung beetles. But shabby chic has moved on from the days when the Edwardian farm worker was wearing his old third-best worsted suit to cover a stained shirt and holed weskit. Jeans torn at the knees and a shapeless sweatshirt emblazoned with Mick Jagger’s lips and the tour dates of the Stones’ 1975 UK tour do not do it.
The bearded eco-warrior student look may work in the volunteer hedge-laying or dry-stone-walling party, but it does nothing to promote the inquisitive natural scientist to genteel members of the public out for a quiet family stroll.
There was a time when openly carrying an insect net often meant disapproving looks from ramblers or bird-watchers, who equated such hunting paraphernalia with fervent butterfly collectors and ivory poachers. A disheveled appearance could only add to the general air of mistrust.
I have only one rule of entomological couture — power dress. In the days of skulking through the Weald’s hidden woodlands or tramping brazenly across the heathered mounds of the Quantocks, a tweed suit, white shirt and neat tie was just the business. In it I would speak to the landowner as an equal, or overawe the gamekeeper. I was approachable to all, curious to know what I was up to, but no longer threatening, or suspicious.
I now have a new form of power-dressing; one suited to bluffing my way past the security guards of disused chalk pits and gravel quarries, or through the formalities of the construction sites and disused wharfs of the Thames Gateway. Safety boots, a shiny white hard-hat, and a bright yellow high-visibility jacket prominently labelled ‘Environment Survey’ will open many a padlocked chain-link gate.
I didn’t need this corporate safety-wear on Tuesday though. After dropping 14-year-old in Brighton for some art-interview coaching from her aunt, I met my Dad for a short hike through the fields and woods around Plumpton, just the other side of the Downs. The usual waxed jacket and pseudo-pashmina for me (very ‘country’). My father’s improved with age. He looked quite civilized in check jacket, pale raincoat and striped dapper tie.
I think he’s done rather well.