Trampling acorns underfoot

I have never seen so many acorns in Nowhere Wood. Everywhere I step, I am treading on acorns. Acorns are the fruits of oak trees and this year it certainly has been a bumper harvest.  Biologists call this a “mast year”.

The air in Nowhere Wood in April and May was very hot and still. This allowed the oak pollen to hang in the air near the feathery stigmas of the oak flowers. Perfect conditions for pollination and making acorns.

July and August were warm and wet, ideal conditions for growing a record crop of acorns.

This is good news for the birds of the wood, like pigeons, jays and woodpeckers, which eat acorns. And for the squirrels and mice, too. Deer eat acorns, and I did once see one near the woods very early in the morning. The oak trees are producers and this is one way that they make food for the woodland herbivores.

The oak trees in the wood are perhaps seventy or eighty years old now and tower above the other trees. They are successful, but for how much longer? The oldest trees are falling down, some by lightning strikes during thunderstorms.

It is difficult for young acorns to grow into oak trees, because the floor of the wood is covered by thick ivy and brambles. There is a battle going on here for light, space and water that makes an episode of Eastenders look tame!

Some young shoots make it through to the light, but they are few and far between. The future of acorns in Nowhere Wood will depend on them.

Everything is connected together, and a change to one organism affects everything else. The squirrels and the jays will be needing the oaks to remain successful. This is the way of life in Nowhere.


  1. Walk round an open space or a park near where you live. How are the living organisms depending on each other to survive?

Squirrel wars

A life well lived

Sir Paul Nurse is one of the most important biologists in the world. He is Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and has served as President of the Royal Society. In 2001, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the proteins that control the division of cells.

Sir Paul’s first book, ‘What Is Life?’ is one of the must-read books of the autumn. It has an accessible and engaging style and is likely to inspire many young people on a journey into biology.

The book has several themes, some autobiographical, as we follow Sir Paul into his laboratory to share his passion for the ways that “lowly” yeast cells divide. He is disarmingly modest, pointing out that he studied yeasts because he found them interesting. At the start he had no idea that the work would unlock the secrets of cancer and lead to the development of new treatments. He tells of how he almost failed to get into Birmingham University because he could not pass O-level French.

He recalls how once, when he was tired, he threw a contaminated petri dish away before going back to check it again, only to discover the holy grail of yeast cells, the one with the mutated cdc2 gene.

In this regard, his story is similar to the “accidental” discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928.  Fortune favours the prepared, though: both scientists had the foresight and self-discipline to go back their discarded dishes to discover something more valuable than gold.

Sir Paul guides the reader through five steps of biology: the cell, the gene, evolution, life as chemistry, life as information. These are brought together in a glorious conclusion to consider the biggest question” what is life?”

“The answer I got at school was something like the MRS GREN list, which states that living organisms exhibit Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion and Nutrition. It is a neat summary of the sorts of things that living organisms do, but it is not a satisfying explanation of what life is. I want to take a different approach. Based on the steps we have taken to understand five of biology’s great ideas, I will draw out a set of essential principles that we can use to define life.”

Nurse, Paul. What Is Life? (p. 96). David Fickling Books Ltd.

This is what makes the book so special and why it should sneak into the bookshelves of all teachers of biology and their students. It is a glorious and joyous read.

This hardback book is available now from booksellers, and for eager beaver readers, like me, on Amazon Kindle.