Archive for May, 2013

Lessons to a Child, from Mother Nature.

Reading this article (Children are key to nature’s future) and some recent experiences with awesome kids in nature made me think back on my childhood. Since it just officially ended (turned 21 a week ago) I thought I’d reflect on how nature and nature-related things affected how I grew up to become who/what I am today, and jot it all down before I forget the awesome memories. Yeah this super long post is more for my own sake, so I never forget.


Of course I’m not saying my childhood is more awesome than anyone else’s, not saying that any kid who goes through the same experience will turn out like me, nor am I saying my childhood was super nature-y – in local context, it’s hard to compare with kids from my parent’s generation who caught and played with spiders, played on beaches that perhaps, had not yet been reclaimed. I’m just saying that relative to others my age (the digital natives), nature has perhaps played a larger role in my development, and I feel privileged because of it.



My relationship with nature started back in kindergarten, when we had a one-day bug-catching activity in Pasir Ris Park. The teachers gave us each a bottle, and gave us free roam over a rather large area in the park, tasking us all to come back with an insect. Having quite the bit of an ego as a kid, I was unwilling to settle for “common” bugs like flies or ants, and when time was almost up, my bottle was still empty. Distraught at my inability to catch anything cool, I sulked under a tree, very much on the verge of crying (I may have cried, but I would never have admitted it :P). Out of nowhere, I felt something large fall onto my head and onto the ground. It was a huge, shiny green beetle! I freaked out for a second, and then nudged the minibeast into my bottle and ran back to the gathering point. There, my beetle and I gained the admiration of my friends and teachers, and (maybe because of the massive feel-good) I left the park with a great interest in creepy crawlies.

Happy kids with our buggy friends. They were released after!

I now know this guy as Anomala albopilosa, the Green Chafer beetle.


In K2, one of the teachers who knew of my interest in insects dropped by my place to pass me some caterpillars she found on the plants in the kindergarten, even providing branches and leaves. I watched the caterpillars as they ate and grew fat, eventually pupating and emerging as beautiful Lime butterflies.   There are many experiences from my pre-school days that I have no memory of, but are clear in old photographs. My mom told me of a time when I went to a museum exhibition on bugs that I honestly cannot recall, but was evidenced by an epically embarrassing album.


Looking at a giant spider with longing. Accompanied by a very accommodating mom!

Embarrassing photo 1. I think my mom was keeping herself amused in her own way.

Embarrassing photo 2. I was told I could become Spiderman. This wasn’t what I had in mind.

Had to settle for this instead. Spiderman was and is my favourite western superhero, of course.


Back then, I also had a bias for underdog-type characters. Which led to me preferring “uncharismatic” animals (especially those whose names started with S, like me) such as spiders, snakes, scorpions and sharks, as compared to my peers who were all about dogs and cats and butterflies and stuff. Bugs, reptiles and amphibians were of particular interest, and I ate field guides for breakfast. I was memorizing common (and some scientific) names like nobody’s business, and till today I still recall some lesser known animals such as the Greater Siren, blind Olms (which I found REALLY fascinating), Glass Lizards and Caecilians . These were of course, North American animals as local field guides weren’t so accessible then, and I had not yet the impression that cool animals could be found locally. I recall staring at the first ladybird I saw for about half an hour cos at that time, I always assumed Singapore did not have ladybirds, among many things.


Primary School

But yes I was quite the bookworm, all the way into primary school. In travel photos I’d be carrying a different animal guide in each photo. But by far till this day, the book that has left me the largest impression (and probably the second biggest factor in my entomophilia) is the Big Book of Bugs, published in 2000.

Childhood bible.

Over a couple of years, I memorized nearly every fact, trivia and measurement in the book

Some things – like terrible handwriting – don’t change.

Wonderful illustrations capture the imagination of a child

Informative, yet not too cheem.

This book sparked my interest in marine invertebrates as well.

Truly a wonderful book for a child curious in the way of the invertebrate!


In Primary school, I was the kid who ran around with a frog in his hands to scare the girls (and many guys), realising later that it probably needed water and accidentally left it in the canteen washing basin.. until horrified shrieks reminded me to return it to where I found it.


When I was in Primary 3, I attended my first beach cleanup, not with the school but with my parents, who were volunteering at an Earth Day cleanup at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Because I was smaller in size, my awesome parents would let me go out further, climbing between mangrove tree roots to get to harder-to-reach pieces of trash. It was a fun, muddy experience I remember till this day.


Sometime later I visited Pasir Ris Mangroves, where I witnessed a group of irresponsible teenage boys throw a can at a crab for their amusement. When they moved on, I went down to pick up the can, and realised there was an overwhelming load of trash. After picking up a few things, I gave up, frustrated. Perhaps, that was when cynicism began, and environmental consciousness at the same time.


Around the same period in Primary 3, Dr. Francis Seow-Choen, colorectal specialist and local phasmid expert, gave a talk at RI, where my mom works. My mom told him about my love for bugs, and the kind man passed her a pair of leaf insects (a male and a female) to give to me! Needless to say I was thrilled, feeding them guava leaves and watching them everyday after school. I named the male Jade for irony, and the female Leaf out of the lack of creativity. The female is the one that looks like a broad leaf. After a few months, they eventually mated and died (of old age I hope), with Leaf leaving behind a batch of eggs which hatched after many weeks. I no longer had the means to care for them, so I released them in the backyard forest (which I now know wasn’t a good idea).

leaf insect

Leaf Insect nymph, from Pasir Ris Mangroves.


In Primary 5, my neighbour and classmate Kok Kiong, called me over one day to show me a bug he had found in his garden (which was more of a grass patch). I recognized it as a beetle grub, and soon I was digging holes in his field to find more. We dug up about 6, and kept them together in a tank with soil that we kept moist constantly. I brought them to school, where they became class pets of sorts. Though it was probably just me and a few others that considered them so. Unfortunately they never reached pupal stage, living for months before they were accidentally killed because we added too much water to the soil :(.


One awesome thing about Primary school is the young scientist cards! Cards with different topics, had tasks with numbered stars according to difficulty, and fulfilling the tasks earning the required number of stars and sending the card together with your work to the science centre earned you a young scientist badge! I remember doing all the animal/plant/environment related ones, and completed every task on the young entomologist card even though I already had the required number of stars. Fun times, this was a great idea.

Some of the badges in the more recent, updated program. (Source)


Another thing that happened to me in primary school was Pokemon. There was just something about the game that drew me in. Monsters based on real animals and plants, a classification system (by type), a specific classification for bugs (the bug type), an emphasis on diversity and seeing (or catching) them all – all these things resounded with the naturalist in me. My love for nature made me love Pokemon and vice versa, as I kept drawing parallels between the game and the real natural world. I would later find out that the creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Taijiri, was inspired by his childhood bug-catching days, when he was known by his friends as Dr. Bug. His wanting to share his love of collecting and exploration inspired the creation of the game. Seems like my love for the game was fated.

My favourite bug Pokemon, based on spiders, centipedes, moths, mantises, beetles and dragonflies.



Secondary School

Many things happened in Secondary school, including some of the lowest points of my short life thus far, and nature took more of a back seat, though it did creep back into my life now and then.


During this period of time, I took an interest in drawing, and actually wanted to go into character design. This period of time when I was drawing would come in handy later in the army, when I discovered nature journaling.


It was during this time though, that I started reading up more on environmental issues (taking both bio and geog) and learning more about them. In Sec 4, my geog teacher Mrs Lim Yoke Tong, gave us an assignment to do a write-up on an environmental issue that concerned us. I chose to write about the shark fin trade, and ended up learning a lot about the illegal wildlife trade, especially with regard to Singapore.

I remember doing quite well for this assignment.


A certain bio teacher, Mr Law Hock Ling, also had quite the impact on me during this time. He took us on walks at Chek Jawa and Labrador Beach, and gave me my first bug net.


On days I ended school earlier, I would take the bus home. The distance between the bus stop to my home is shorter if I cut through the backyard forest (now known as the Pasir Ris Greenbelt), so I almost always walked that path. Over time I grew attached to the place, naming trees and watching the resident Nephila spiders grow. I started bringing a camera out so I could take photos of the bugs, snakes and birds that appear on the short stretch. Some things happened along the way that concerned me, such as the clearing of fringing trees, but at that time I was not sure of what to do, so I stayed silent. I spoke up years later in August last year, more on that later.

The road less taken

Natural Canopy Jigsaw

After some clearing. (Photo by Mark Tan)

Resident Snake


During the holidays after graduating, I looked up Mr David Court, who does research on spiders at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and used to be a teacher at RI. I helped out with field and labwork, learning more about the museum at the same time.

Many spiders were ridiculously tiny, and had to be observed under the microscope

The weirdest find was this Pholcid spider that had ridiculously large palps and stalked eyes, with 3 eyes on each stalk.




In JC, my biophilia returned with a vengeance.

Sometimes distracting me from my studies ><. (Photo by Mark Tan)


Early in J1, my brother and I discovered the beautiful Tampines Mountain Biking Trail, and would frequently go there to de-stress. With scenery that looked nothing like Singapore and lots of birdlife, it was a really relaxing place to be.

Rolling Hills (almost)

Hidden gem of a place.


Around this time, I also started noticing relatively large balls of poop collecting under one of the trees in my backyard. After searching for a bit, I found that there were Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) caterpillars in the tree! I then tracked their development into pupae, and was lucky enough to be around when they emerged!

Fat Cat

Coccoon, pupa inside!

The one I raised turned out to be an adult male.

The huge female.



Back to the wild


It was also during JC when I joined quite a number of nature related programs and organisations, in school and externally. Shall list a few.

Teamseagrass! Thanks to Jocelyne for introducing me to Teamseagrass, and Ria for organising trips! Volunteers help with seagrass monitoring, and get to experience our great shore life in return :). For an idea of what it’s like, visit this post

Walks of Life, a student initiated nature guiding group in RJ

RJ Ecological Literacy program

Raffles Science Institute (did some work on nerite snails), thanks Dr Abigayle Ng, Dr Adrian Loo and Mr Ngan!

International Coastal Cleanup Singapore! National Day Cleanup 2011

And many other things, including Project Driftnet Singapore, attending Leafmonkey Workshops and more.


After A’s, I helped out with the spider workshop at the RMBR open house.

Spider hunting at Kent Ridge with Mr David Court

Spider hunting at Kent Ridge with Mr David Court

With our Nephila antipodiana

With our Nephila antipodiana. Spiders recycle the proteins in their webs by eating them, so removing a spider from its web is very crippling. Solution – take the whole web with it! As we walked back to the museum, we used the web as a mosquito net by waving it in front of us – the thing trapped up to 30 of the buggers!

Excited kids (and parents) at the spider workshop

Excited kids (and parents) at the spider workshop – potential fellow buggers?




This post pretty much sums up my army experience! Due to the ban on image capturing devices, I was forced to return to drawing, thus starting a nature journal.

One of the pages in the journal. More on the usefulness of sketching in this post.


Towards the end of my term, I joined the cause in the Pasir Ris Greenbelt issue – more on that here.



What Now?

I’m currently awaiting to enter uni, and doing research on ladybirds with the National Biodiversity Centre.

Legit field attire, net upgrade!

Shameless advertising.


Anyway, I’m a lucky kid guy who has had many opportunities courtesy of many people, and I am really thankful.


Especially to my awesome parents who don’t mind me chasing after my passion, and who support me however they can. It’s really because of them that I received so much exposure.


Rounding up this post.

To quote to article in the first sentence, “With global environmental problems increasing, the decreasing number of children in tune with and passionate about the natural world is a scary proposition. Where is the next generation of environmentalists going to come from? Who will be the future stewards of the planet?” Of course, people from our generation have to do something about it, if we want to see these future stewards of the planet.


I have met some kids who give me hope. My secondary school geog teacher Mrs Lim, ensures her daughter Isabelle gets enough exposure to nature. At the age of 5, this kid is telling me about how leatherback turtles have razors in their throats to help mince their food, something I should’ve known but I didn’t! When we visited the aquarium in KL, she identified the Piranhas even before we passed the gantry into the gallery, talking about how they were armed with sharp teeth and sharp vision. She also loves bugs and dinosaurs.

Mrs Lim asked me to show them around Macritchie, which I was of course more than happy to do so.

A blessed child in the presence of two nurturing mothers


I also recently shared about ladybirds at the Creepy Crawlies Camp at Blue House International School, which has an awesome set up and enthusiastic kids who were a joy to talk to. More about that in the next post!


In any case, I agree with the parting words of the aforementioned article – “We as adults, as conservationists, as parents, as concerned humans, all need to help children reconnect with nature. The planet will be a much better place for all of us.” Maybe in introducing kids to nature, we ourselves will be reintroduced with eyes of wonder, and maybe, hope.