Originally published in The Mudskipper, February 1996.
The Habitat Group
An idea forms (1990)
In 1990, one of our biograds working for the Social Development Section asked me for suggestions of trips they could organise. Half-jokingly, I said going to the mangrove would be ideal. "What better way for people to get acquainted when they spend half the time clutching at each other?" Surprisingly, she declared it was a good idea and I rounded up some my kakis for a trip to the Lim Chu Kang mangroves. The participants enjoyed the session, and the difficulties the demonstrators encountered in moving an inexperienced group through the softer patches of the mangrove were overcome by the guys. They were a gentlemanly bunch and considerate of each other as well, not just the girls (perhaps theres something in Her Worlds rating of SDS men above SDU guys). We ended the trip with a visit to an overgrown area nearby which was to become the Sungei Buloh Nature Park, and watched the birds feeding in the old prawn ponds until a thunderous monsoon storm raged, sending down sheets of rain horizontally, which sent us and the birds scampering for cover.
What I found surprising then was the fascination with which our stories were received, and the numerous questions which were posed to us. The theme concentrated on biology but we threw in what we could about early Singapore settlements, World War II, fishing, food, Aliens, and the Malaysian Railway. These anecdotes had been accumulated primarily during the several years we spent working with A/P Prof Murphy as part of his team in the mangroves, and from undergraduate field trips. Although we didnt know much about the flora and fauna, we apparently knew enough to entertain the group we were guiding. An idea then started forming. As an undergraduate, I had enjoyed tremendously the relatively rare trips to various habitats which were part of our curricular. A seemingly boring landscape was transformed by the demos and lecturers into a whole new world! Even walks around campus with knowledgeable demos proved to be fascinating to me and many of my classmates. I had never been to such habitats before, except perhaps, while in the army, but I was somewhat preoccupied then. But did the others find the stories as interesting as I did? The SDS group could simply have been a rare bunch.
That this enjoyment and interest not unique was confirmed by students from my old JC, layman groups and BSSers during trips to the north coast mangroves, Bukit Timah and Pulau Ubin. People enjoyed the trips, and I grew more confident about leading them. Finally, in 1992, during a ride on a bus no. 95 to Holland Village with Chalad, (then a third-year undergraduate) I finally discussed the idea about organising such trips. At the now defunct bus-stop in Holland Drive, I wrote down a profile of something I called The HABITAT Group.
The idea was to involve biograds as demos for layman and students during field trips into various habitats in Singapore - in particular, the forests of Bukit Timah, the Central Catchment, Pulau Ubin, Nee Soon freshwater swamp, the rocky shores of Labrador Beach and St. Johns Island, the reef flats at Pulau Hantu the beach at Changi, and the north coast mangroves. Many of our working friends regularly lamented the loss of field trips in their present lives, and the lack of opportunity to apply their hard-earned knowledge. The rest of us who were pursuing higher degrees realised we would soon be no better off. While it was easy enough to share stories about plants and animals in the university with kindred souls, this would obviously be rare elsewhere. Trips by the Nature Society (Singapore) rarely dealt with all aspects of a habitat, and few got us dirty enough! The biograds also wanted to socialise with each other, for after graduation, even talking over a meal during crowded weekends in town was getting to be a rare event. An attractive vision formed - interested biograds from different years working together as guides on field trips which would end in us swapping stories over a hard-earned makan session!
Several of my kakis needed no persuasion, and had also organised their own trips. Since 1992, we have had the understanding that once I finished my thesis, I would get things organised on a relatively regular basis. In the meantime, we were operating on an ad hoc basis, activating whenever someone approached us, usually at the last minute. The fastest reaction time ever was an immediate response (!) after receiving an urgent call from one of our biograds. I grabbed my stuff and yelled to Chalad who was the only available postgrad around that afternoon. We raced down to NUH to grab sandwiches and a taxi ride to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Reaching the reserve, we sprinted around our route to ensure it would be manageable for the students we would be guiding. As we emerged from our paths and began to exchange information about the routes, the students from the special school arrived. Chalad had also been nervous about handling such young uns, but later I saw her happily walking hand in hand with one of the children, leading the rest of her group back. Feedback from their teachers indicated that we had dealt with the children well, and had managed to convey information to them using suitable analogies. We were thus rather euphoric after the trip, and had a pleasant session later, swapping stories at the nearby hawker centre.
Activation! (13th January 1996)
Years passed, and pessimistic individuals suggested that the idea of The HABITAT Group would never materialise. Happily enough it did, within two weeks of the completion of the thesis. Activating biograds has been an interesting occassion, for I lost touch with many of them last year. I am surprised by the number of people I apparently have talked to about the group, for everyone I called so far has said "Oh finally!" or something to that effect. With the first trip underway, eight demonstrators of considerable competence agreed to participate without hesitation. One of our biograds is teaching at Raffles Girls Secondary, and we took 30 of her Sec 3 and 4 students into Sungei Buloh East.
In between stints of navigating soft patches of mud (amidst considerable squealing and screaming), the girls got acquainted with the algae, lichen, trees, fish, some molluscs, and many crabs. Eyes widened at stories of the daily battles and struggles amongst mangrove organisms, reveling in particular over the stories of battles between the aggressive portunid crabs and vulnerable soft-shelled tree-climbing sesarmine crabs, and the attacks of predatory snails on bivalves. They also marveled at the physical adaptations and behavioral strategies that various organisms have developed over time to best occupy their niches. Amidst these stories and our ideas about the purpose of life, shoes were lost and retrieved, and eventually, all became familiar and comfortable in the mangrove. The grubby, excitable bunch that got hosed down at the nearby nature park were quite unlike the clean and docile group of students that we had started out with!
Within a week, we received news of four other interested parties - all via biograds; and this was even before we got started looking for groups to guide! It is crucial that I recruit a larger pool of demos, for the enthusiasm of the present few might fizzle out from exhaustion! Actually, I find it amazing that I knew so many people (see acknowledgements) prior to activation, who are forthcoming about their knowledge and ideas, and are willing to help out, often with very short notice. Their selflessness has been an incredibly encouraging, and working with such individuals is a rare experience.
Originally, I thought only to involve our biograds, but recently realised that there is no reason to exclude interested undergrads. Although less experienced, coming along on such trips would encourage their interest by providing the neccessary experience and making it easier to read technical material. After all, the present pool of really experienced demos either worked in these habitats as student assistants or on projects for Zoology Congress, honours or masters thesis. In the absence of such opportunity, the present undergrads could use the HABITAT groups outings as an alternative. So if you are interested in natural history, telling stories and meeting people, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org [now email@example.com] or look for me at the Systematics & Ecology Lab at S2-02-14. All you need is a desire to learn and pass on knowledge about natural history, and an ability to always say you dont know, when you dont!
Whats in store
Right now, we are working with schools in which our biograds are teaching, and our alma maters. That should keep us occupied for awhile. I have no idea how long this effort will last, but if we keep the number of trips below a manageable level, it may perhaps survive for awhile. The enjoyment of meeting new friends, their different reactions and the yakking sessions after the trip is something we look forward to. That is a lot to learn from each group we take out, and different things to observe, which ensure that each session is a fresh experience. Furthermore, a large part of each trip is simply a story-telling session, which has been a part of many human communities and cultures. It is no longer possible to gather around a fire in our urban neighbourhoods, and our trips may be one way to soothe that restless stirrings of your heart!
There are also plans to eventually develop a kit for schools to provide sufficient material for enterprising teachers to lead trips independently, and perhaps, the organisation of teachers workshops to clue them in. We could then perhaps focus on layman groups. Should we not survive long-term, the kits may be the groups legacy. However, these are simply ideas at the moment. Not that Im afraid they will fizzle out without a chance; The HABITAT Group too was merely an idea once.
Acknowledgements - Thanks to Cheryl (Chalad) Tan, Alvin Wong, Chang Chia Yi, Wang Luan Keng, Shawn Lum, Kelvin Lim, Cynthia Lee, Goh Si Guim, Choong Mei Fun and Tan Koh Siang for their participation in the group, encouragement and the support of their specialised knowledge. Thanks also to D. H. Murphy, Peter Ng, J. B. Sigurdsson, Ian Turner and Hugh Tan for ideas, knowledge and help offered in the past and future.