Jurassic Coast Trust member Professor Sir Ghillean Prance is a renowned botanist and Amazon explorer. After a prodigious career at the New York Botanical Garden, he became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1988. Sir Ghillean has lived on the Jurassic Coast since retiring. We caught up with him at his home in Lyme Regis last October to talk about the Jurassic Coast, World Heritage and the power of nature.
The Jurassic Coast
Having lived all over the world, it may seem surprising that Sir Ghillean and his wife have made their home in Lyme Regis. Sir Ghillean however is quick to explain his passion for the Coast. “It’s a beautiful place to live. Look at the view out there, could one have a better view than that?” he says, looking out towards Golden Cap. “We’ve lived all over the place, but I did promise my wife Anne that when we returned (to the UK) we’d live by the sea. And it’s convenient, because at that time I was living in London at Kew and was quite involved with the Eden Project. So it was a good place, but we love the view.“
Having lived all over the world, it may seem surprising that Sir Ghillean and his wife have made their home in Lyme Regis. Sir Ghillean however is quick to explain his passion for the Coast. “It’s a beautiful place to live. Look at the view out there, could one have a better view than that?” he says, looking out towards Golden Cap. “We’ve lived all over the place, but I promised my wife Anne that when we returned (to the UK) we’d live by the sea. And it’s convenient, because at that time I was living in London at Kew and was quite involved with the Eden Project. So it was a good location, but we love the view.“
Asked about his favourite spots on the Coast, Sir Ghillean namechecks Stonebarrow Hill, where he and his wife often walk and picnic “just watching what’s going on.” But, he admits, it’s hard to choose as, “each place is a little bit different and interesting.” A far cry from the Amazon, he also loves Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens. “It has a lot of plants that you can’t grow in most of the UK because of the sub-climate there.” It is also a source of inspiration for the ever-curious botanist, who in his time has discovered around 350 new plant species. “I like to see what grows in Abbotsbury, then I can go and grow some of them in my own garden.”
Not that Sir Ghillean has a great deal of time to garden; in his so-called retirement he plays a very active part in the scientific community. After our interview, he was heading up to London to meet with the Royal Society to discuss the state of Science in Brazil following Bolsanaro’s spending cuts, and then to the USA for a conference.
Closer to home, Sir Ghillean is Chair of the MEMO Trust which together with the Eden Project, is looking to establish what will likely be called Eden Portland. “The MEMO (Mass Exinction Memorial Observatory) Project was the original name because we wanted to show the human-caused extinction of the world. I would describe it as an interpretation of the importance of biodiversity; of how the whole world depends on maintaining biological diversity. We are basically doing two things: we are going to make use of the caves carved out by the mining of Portland Stone; we also want a monument building near the edge of the coast. Those will be the facilities we use to interpret biodiversity and extinction.“
Prance was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for 11 years (from 1988 to 1999), 4 years before it became a World Heritage Site. “It was initiated as an idea in my time and my successor carried it out,” says Sir Ghillean who is in no doubt about the benefits of World Heritage. “I think that it helps any place because people who are going to visit a town, a country, often look at what is there and World Heritage status has become something that people look for. Certainly in the case of Kew it brings more visitors from abroad. It also gives you a responsibility to look after the Site, to work on it even more. “
After he left Kew, Sir Ghillean did a lot of work through the Eden Project on a World Heritage Site in Argentina, the Yabotí Biosphere Reserve. Now that he lives on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, he is keen to support the work of the Trust. “The Jurassic Coast Trust is an important organisation, and when I saw that it became a membership organisation, I thought ‘I must be a member’, as a local resident who is looking at the coast and is very interested in its upkeep.”
Sir Ghillean takes a holistic view of the power of nature. “I study the evolution of plants and the way that things interact. I’ve studied the pollination of huge trees in the Amazon, water lilies on the lakes, and seen the way everything depends on everything else, and also the resilience of nature. There are so many trees in the Amazon that they drop their seeds on the forest floor, and they just stay there as tiny little seedlings until there is a storm and it knocks over some other trees and there’s light; they’re waiting for light to grow. I see the forces of nature as very much part of the way that everything works.”
Sir Ghillean’s discoveries of pollination relationships in the Amazon highlight the fragile interdependence of plants and animals. The giant water lily, Victoria amazonica, opens its flowers at dusk to trap beetles it then expels at dawn via a narrow channel filled with pollen. The Brazil nut tree, Bertholletia excelsa, has an incredibly complex pollination system. Only the female of a certain species of orchid bee can open the Brazil nut flower whilst the male bee gets his aphrodisiac from a certain species of orchid. Only one animal can open the Brazil nut when it falls – the agouti (similar to a large guinea-pig); it buries the nuts in a different place, sometimes forgetting where, hence how Brazil nut trees can grow hundreds of metres away from each other. The existence of a Brazil nut is nothing short of miracle.
Sir Ghillean’s connection to the Amazon runs deep. He has been to the Amazon every year since 1964, conducting extensive fieldwork for the New York Botanical Garden, and, in 1973, establishing the National Institute of Amazonian Research’s first graduate programme which is still running today. “I’m very worried about the Amazon at the moment,” he says. “Since the current president of Brazil took over, he’s doing everything he can to destroy all the good things that have been done over the last 20 years to reduce deforestation and to create reserves and to protect the native indigenous people… with whom I’ve worked a great deal. My hope is that there are also a lot of the local people, Brazilians who are enraged by what’s going on and I think that there’ll be enough grassroots against it… because it’s very difficult for someone from abroad to speak up against it with effect.”
Interestingly, Columbia are doing a much better job on conserving their Amazon. “Their president is not gung-ho on cutting down the Amazon, he has much more of a conservation ethic.”
Renowned for his leadership qualities, Sir Ghillean kept his team alive for 8 days in the Amazon after a plane crash left them stranded. According to an interview he gave on Desert Island Discs, he gave everyone tasks to which they were suited. He is also a qualified outboard motor mechanic. “In the Amazon we did a lot of our transport by rivers and we wanted to go to the most remote places, going up and down rapids. I realised that our life depended on keeping those motors running.”
“Leadership is an interesting and important thing,” he expounds. “Treat your staff well. The relationship with staff is very important. Know your staff.”
Keeping it in the Family
Whilst Sir Ghillean and his wife were initially drawn to the scenery, Sir Ghillean admits his greatest involvement with the Jurassic Coast is his 14-year-old grandson who loves fossils. “Every time he comes to stay, I take him out and we walk along the Coast in either direction looking for fossils. He has been on Lyme Regis Museum fossil tours and he loves the geologists who are there. One of his early finds was a nice ammonite, at that time they could take them into the workshop and have them polished. He has a wonderful display of fossils now, including the fossils I collected as a boy. He is very keen on fossils as a result of the Jurassic Coast.”
Interview by Penny Jones