According to Mark Twain, experience is an author’s most valuable asset, “It’s the thing that puts the muscle, breath and warm blood into the book” he said. I know I love reading books although I’m less convinced that I have a book IN me but I have been thinking about what inspired my fondness for landscape writing and the natural world.
I recently interviewed the Springwatch team at the launch of last season’s programme. Chris Packham’s father drove him to Suffolk to see our hen harriers when he was a kid. Michaela Strachan had a childhood less obviously driven by the love of wildlife but she was keen to emphasise how an interest in the natural world is, indeed, a natural part of childhood. Two different childhoods, two different journeys which converged at a point in time to inspire thousands more children.
My own fascination with wildlife can be directly attributed to my love of authors such as Allison Uttley, Joan Aitken, Arthur Ransome, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Enid Blyton whose stories all had a strong sense of place. No matter how fanciful the stories were (and Blyton could never be described as particularly grounded in reality, indeed her own poor parenting was masked by an illusion of something much better, part generated by her and in part by the belief that someone who writes well for children must be an especially sensitive parent), their words have encouraged generations of kids to scrooch down and look at what is half hidden in a hedgerow, shadowed behind a tree or lurking below the surface of a river.
A Blyton-esque stream is sailed by elves in boats made from leaves and her world populated by toads who make blue paint from harebells, bluebells and scrapings from the sky on a sunny day. She drew my attention to wallflowers growing from dry stone walls and told of how they were seeded from a necklace of brown and yellow gems, broken by an elf called Gillie (hence: ‘gillieflowers’). She wrote of fairies working in ribbon shops who used their rolling skills to curl up the delicate fronds of ferns to please the fairy king and queen. All delightful albeit fanciful stuff but cleverly based upon the creatures’ perspective and a good way of encouraging a child to be attentive: to slowly uncurl the fronds of a shuttlecock fern and watch them spring back; to place the flat of my hand on a hare’s form and feel the warmth contained there.
Last week I went on a jaunt with the East of England RSPB and Natural England to spot the stone curlews who make their home on Cavenham Heath on the edge of the Broken Lands (you might know this place better by its newer name, The Brecklands). Amid the slate skies of late summer, the dusty purple spume of heather and a mosaic of ochre stonecrop flowers covering the heath, we watched several of these positively prehistoric looking birds as they enjoyed the warmth of a sunny evening. Stone Curlew are a local success story, not so long ago nearly gone from this region and now, thanks to unified efforts from farmers, conservationists and the EU, they are breeding and seem happy to be here. Looking as if evolution was drunk when it made them, their eyes glowed as big and round as the setting sun and as the last of its rays disappeared behind the famous stands of birch and the deliberately preserved pine lines, we heard them shriek and call to each other in preparation for their winter migration, “Still here, mate?” “Yep, just getting in a few more calories in.” “Watch out for those Maltese bird trappers, they got Aunt Lil last year. “ “Aw, didn’t know that, sorry man.”
There’s exotica here in West Suffolk if you care to look for it. No elves riding the rapids on dock leaves. No fairies sending you to Bad Child Fairyland for corrective treatment, no imps riding lacewings as you or I would ride a horse. But there are yellow legged birds with goggle eyes and a wealth of regional nature organisations just sitting there waiting to tell you even more magical stories about them and every other living thing that chooses to live beside you. All you need to do is contact them.