Wednesday 8 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 2

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability, was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we're publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read the story "Cetiosaurus," by one of two runners-up, Sam Dawson.

Sam Dawson is a writer with a Creative Writing MA from the University of Leicester. His work has been published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies.


It started with the New Walk Museum and Cetiosaurus. He couldn’t get over Cetiosaurus having once lived in Leicestershire. 


‘Cetiosaurus was one of the tallest dinosaurs living in Leicester. Other dinosaurs lived in Leicester too. Like Iguanodon. And big bad ones like Megalosaurus.’ 

‘That’s cool. But you know this was prehistoric times, right? Cetiosaurus wasn’t hanging around the clocktower or shopping in the Highcross.’

We stayed by that display for twenty minutes, the long skeletal neck of Cetiosaurus looming down as if to greet its newest fan. 

When he got home, he googled Cetiosaurus on his tablet. He didn’t like that Cetiosaurus had died in such a brutal way – obliterated by a meteor or starved in a wasteland or frozen in a great ice age. 

Extinction became the latest word in his vocabulary. Each time he went to say it, he took a 
long time sounding out the syllables, but he never pronounced the word correctly. ‘X-stin-shun,’ he said. ‘All the dinosaurs died in an X-stin-shun.’ 

Drawings appeared taped to his bedroom wall – comets trailing tails of red and orange, crayon glacial landscapes of light blue and grey. And always Cetiosaurus. Dot eyes drawn to the sky, an up-turned letter U for its terrified last expression. 

‘Dad, did you know that every day one-hundred and fifty animals go X-tinc?’

‘Is that right? Terrible stuff.’ 

‘Yep. And the world has had five mass X-stin-shuns. They were all in dinosaur times though.’ 

‘Right. Wow. Glum.’ 

From the extinction of the dinosaurs to extinctions of the modern day. He’d sit on the sofa, tablet leant on his lap, spitting out facts in an amusingly childlike way – the world is running out of rhinos; humans keep killing animals; the world is changing and it’s destroying their homes. 

Obsessive, macabre, but his research was purely academic. What kind of father would I have been if I took the tablet from his hands, told him: ‘No, bad child. Stop learning about the natural world.’

So he kept learning. Became an expert on X-stin-shun.

RE: Your Son 
From: Mrs. Patel <>
To: Me <>

Dear Parent, 

I’m writing regarding your son’s recent fascination with turtles, particularly one ‘black softshell turtle.’ He talks about them an awful lot, and I fear it’s beginning to be a distraction for him and others in the classroom. Perhaps we could have a brief chat about this after school sometime. How about the next time you come to pick him up? 

Kind Regards, 
Mrs. Patel 
Year 2, Class B 

‘Your teacher tells me you’re really interested in this turtle. Wanna tell me about it?’ 

‘Yeah! Did you know black softshell turtles went X-stinc because humans kept polluting their water? Another animal that went X-stinc because of water pollution is the wyoming toad. Loads of other fish and frogs died too. Did you know that orangutans are nearly X-stinc? Humans burn down their homes in the jungle. Did you know it’s so they can put cows there so we can eat the cows, and then the cows fart, and that pollutes the air too?’ 

‘I… Wow… Hmmm.’

I didn’t know. Or I vaguely knew and chose not to care. So I jumped on my laptop and did some research, to learn how to talk with him. I started to see human beings as blind little termites. We began in an overgrown garden but somehow found our way into the foundations of a house. We got to work, building ourselves a home, mounds of dirt and soil, an incy wincy apartment complex built into the house’s support beams. We made a veritable termite kingdom, with termite roads and termite skyscrapers - blind little termites everywhere, not knowing we had built our mounds just a bit too high and chewed through the wooden support beams just a bit too much, and soon the house would come crashing down on top of us. 
Termites. An invasion. That was us.


‘Dad, did you know that the sea is getting so hot that all the ice is melting?’

‘Did you know that the global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over the last 2000 years?’

‘Did you know that the sea is rising? It’s like water in a bathtub, Dad.’ 

‘Did you know, Son, that the global average sea level has risen at least 21 centimetres since 1880?’ 

‘Is that a lot?’ 

‘Oh, yes.’

‘… whoa.’ 

His mother contacted me via WhatsApp. She told me our son had been boasting about the conversations he had with me, whenever he visited hers on alternate weekends. He wanted to talk about similar things with her, but she didn’t know how.

She told me not to encourage him.  

I asked why not. 

She said because it’s weird. 

It is weird, I agreed. But the stuff he’s talking about – someone should talk about. The stuff he’s talking about, it’s happening

She told me to cut it out anyway. She told me it wasn’t healthy for him to think about these things. 

She didn’t understand.

I brought him to Beacon Hill on my next weekend with him. Figured it’d be fun. Thought we could imagine dinosaurs stomping about - if he was even still into dinosaurs, that is. We studied the jutting, craggy rock formations, the huddles of beige mushrooms, the crows hopping in the tall grass, listened out for the high-pitched whistling and twittering of the goldfinches in the trees. I told him birds used to be dinosaurs. He was more interested in the cows. 

Keeping cows caused greenhouse gases, he told me, staring at the shaggy horned bulls beyond the wooden fence. Keeping cows takes up so much land, land that we could instead grow vegetables on. 

Mostly, the cows grazed. One bull stared forwards, eyes so human, so similar, boring into me, as if insisting I pay attention. Learn.

I’d never thought of it that way, I told my son. Thanks. And I brought him to the playground area instead, the cow watching us all the way.

RE: School Dinners 
From: Mrs Patel <>
To: Me <>

Dear Parent, 

I’m writing regarding your son. For a number of weeks now, he has not been eating his school meals. Are you aware of this? Is this something we should arrange to discuss? Is something happening at home that may be putting him off his food? Let’s chat again, after school. 

Kind Regards, 
Mrs Patel 
Year 2, Class B 

‘I do eat my school meals. Peas and mashed potato and broccoli. But I don’t want to eat my chicken nuggets. Or when they give me pork chops.’ 

‘But it’s beef, it’s cows, that are impacting the environment. You can eat chicken.’ 

‘No. Keeping chickens also makes rivers dirty. It’s called run-off. And there are so many of them, it takes so much land to feed them. And they destroy the soil. It’s bad, Dad. It’s real bad.’ 

So I did more research, and we ended up eating vegan three times a week. The meals were delicious. Garlicky teriyaki stir-fry with cornflour-fried extra-firm tofu, creamy chickpea curry with ground almonds and baby spinach, cherry tomato rigatoni. 

We switched to oat milk too. In a coffee, you can’t even tell the difference. 

His mother was not happy about it. The messages began on WhatsApp. She couldn’t cook those kinds of meals, what was I thinking? Why was he even thinking about this kind of stuff? It wasn’t proper. Sort yourself out. Be normal. 

All I could do was respond with the truth. Hey, this kid is wiser than you give him credit for. Listen to him once in a while. 

Top Nature, Environment and Sustainability tips from my son. 
  1. Farmed animals are responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture also accounts for at least half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Eat less meat, dairy, and eggs. It’s kinder to those poor, mistreated animals too.
  2. Do the little things! Take the bus or walk. Turn off your lights, and that running tap. Recycle, don’t just chuck your plastic away. Personal action is public action when we all put in a shift.
  3. Lastly (and his wisest advice, in my opinion), get out there, get into nature, and breathe. Exist. Find a shady spot underneath a big oak tree and have a lie-down. Find a fern-covered hill in the middle of some woods and trek up it. Stand on the cliff edge and smell that ocean salt spray dancing in the air. It’s fun out there. Go and enjoy it! 

He ran into my bedroom one evening. He should have been asleep. His tablet was with him. He pushed the screen into my face. There was an article by The Guardian. I gasped.

The black softshell turtle was no longer extinct. He bounced on the bed next to me in celebration, hooting and squeaking, a proper little Ewok.

I read on. The black softshell turtle had been found to exist in the pond of a temple called the Hayagriva Madhava Temple located in Assam, India. A small population had also been found in Kalyan Sagar Lake, in Tripura. Efforts had been made to reintroduce the turtles to the wild, and environmental biologists were working hard to preserve the species and their natural habitat.

My son watched me read, his face, my little boy’s face, saying: Dad! Dad! They’re doing things! People are doing things!

That they are, I felt like saying.

I ruffled his hair. For some stupid reason, I felt like crying.

And we are too.

He grabbed the tablet from my hands and rushed out of the room. I’d have to get him to sleep soon enough, but that could come later. For now, instead, my thoughts turned to Cetiosaurus. Cetiosaurus: long, tall, proud. Cetiosaurus living in Britain for thousands and thousands of years, sixty-eight million years ago. Cetiosaurus starving, suffocating, freezing. Cetiosaurus with the dot eyes turned towards the sky, an upside-down U because Cetiosaurus was so sad to be extinct. My son was so sad they were extinct.

Sorry, Cetiosaurus. Too late for you, Cetiosaurus. But not too late full stop.

No, Cetiosaurus. Have faith. Not too late full stop.

Not by a long shot.

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