The Wild Network is inspired by the love for wildlife that Gerald Durrell nurtured from early childhood and hope more of us will be encouraged by his example to wonder out into the wilderness of the world or to find #wildime on our doorsteps.
If ever there was a book that captures the spirit of #wildtime, it must surely be Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. We’ve been watching The Durrells on ITV, which is based loosely on this and two other books Gerald Durrell wrote about the five years that he and his family spent on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935 to 1939.
As a boy age 10, Gerald Durrell had the freedom to roam with his dog Roger around Corfu for hours on end, making friends with the locals, getting lost, finding his own way among both people and place.
“Together we ventured farther and farther afield, discovering quiet, remote olive-groves which had to be investigated and remembered, working our way through a maze of blackbird-haunted myrtles, venturing into narrow valleys where the cypress-trees cast a cloak of mysteriously, inky shadows.”
While in the series, the family’s antics are variously funny, poignant and soap-opera-ish in ways that don’t even pretend to reflect the book, it is the scenes of young Gerry’s fascination with animals that make me catch my breath and bite my lip. I recognise the thrill that Gerry experiences when he paddles with a pelican, scratches a tortoise’s neck or gazes at fireflies dancing in the night air. Noises fade and time slows as he is treated to glimpses of how other creatures experience the world, as he develops sa sense of kinship with animals.
Here’s how Gerald Durrell describes what it was like to fall under the spell of nature:
“At first, I was so bewildered by this profusion of life on our very doorstep that I could only move about the garden in a daze, watching now this creature, now that, constantly having my attention distracted by the flights of brilliant butterflies that drifted over the hedge.”
Over time, his ability to concentrate on what he is seeing – sometimes for hours on end – improves. He learns how to focus, to learn, and to notice.
“Among the myrtles the mantids moved, lightly, carefully, swaying slightly, the quintessence of evil. They were lank and green, with chinless faces and monstrous globular eyes, frosty gold, with an expression of intense, predatory madness in them. The crooked arms, with their fringes of sharp teeth, would be raised in mock supplication to the insect world, so humble, so fervent, trembling slightly when a butterfly flew too close.”
This wasn’t about knowing what species the mantids were, or about clinically appraising animal behaviour. It was about enchantment. Pure, mind-blowing, transformative enchantment. And it has repercussions in later life because Gerald Durrell, thus irrevocably bewitched, went on to become a famous naturalist and conservationist, and he recognised the profound impact that these early connections to nature had on him.
“My childhood in Corfu shaped my life. If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood.”
We can’t give our children the gift of Gerald Durrell’s childhood; indeed it would be a mistake to fall prey to full blown nostalgia, as I keep telling myself, snivelling quietly, as the animals work their charm on telly Gerry. But, by thinking creatively, radically and open-mindedly about how children connect with nature today, we can give them the gift of #wildtime and rekindle some of the enchantment that a little boy felt 80 odd years ago.
His widow Lee Durrell agrees.
“Gerald Durrell would have loved the idea of The Wild Network. He was saddened by the fact that children in the late 20th century seemed to be so detached from nature, and I can just imagine what he would say about their even greater separation in the 21st century! I am fervently hoping that The Durrells will inspire today’s parents to let their children explore and embrace the natural world, just as the young Gerry did.”